Emily Dickinson: A Certain Slant of Light: Essay
There's a certain Slant of light,
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes--
Heavenly Hurt, it gives us--
We can find no scar,
But internal difference,
Where the Meanings, are--
None may teach it--Any--
'Tis the Seal Despair--
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air--
When it comes, the Landscape listens--
Shadows--hold their breath--
When it goes, 'tis like the Distance
On the look of Death--
Emily Dickinson’s poem “A Certain Slant of Light” begins with an impression of winter light. The sun hangs lower in the southern sky and the light slants in and weighs upon Dickinson’s soul like “the heft of cathedral tunes.” Organ music with its multitude of pipes can strike the ear like a wall of unwelcome solemnity and grandiosity. The light oppresses her soul, giving her a “heavenly hurt” inside her mind “where the meanings are.” People, on the most interior dimension, are a set of beliefs and meanings. The experience of slanted light is a metaphor for the set of ideas linked to the experience of depression. Depression can be an experience of truth and existential despair that leaves no physical scar but rather a metaphysical difference in her orientation to life. In the third stanza, Dickinson indicates that the despair she is experiencing is total and admits of no response or relief. “’Tis the seal despair” perhaps alludes to the seven seals of the book of revelation in the bible when God reveals his cosmic conclusion to the universal story. Dickinson feels the finality of her depression/affliction that has been “Sent us of the air.” Depression comes at her from a transcendent and undeniable dimension of her interiority. In the final stanza she describes in fearsome terms how it feels to be so overwhelmed. It is as if the whole world, including shadows, attends precisely to her agony. When her depression finally lifts, she is left stunned and paralyzed as if she has been somehow left slaughtered, yet still alive staring beyond her own battered self, “like the distance on the look of death.” She feels numb and remote from herself even as a dead body that was once an animated, intimate person is now a mere distant object.
Dickinson’s poem is brief. Its structure is composed of four, four-line stanzas that rhyme the second and fourth line of each stanza. The meter tends to the iambic and the second and fourth lines are typically a syllable shorter than the first and third lines. The structure lulls the reader with its simplicity allowing the poem entrance into the reader’s soul, there to threaten and to quietly share the horrifying experience of near total despair and its aftermath.
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