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Emily Dickinson: A Certain Slant of Light: Essay

Updated on June 22, 2011

There's a certain Slant of light,

Winter Afternoons--

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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    • profile image

      salini 5 years ago

      very beautiful poem

    • profile image

      cosette 7 years ago

      Eloquent and very beautiful. Thank you.

    • barranca profile image

      barranca 7 years ago

      Thanks Pamela. E.D. is just about my favorite poet. Someday I would like to take a college course on just Emily with someone who is really knowledgeable.

    • Pamela Kinnaird W profile image

      Pamela Kinnaird W 7 years ago from Maui and Arizona

      Very interesting description of Emily Dickinson's meanings within her poem. I liked reading someone else's slant. I have several books on Emily Dickinson and her poems. Thanks for a well-thought-out article.

    • maven101 profile image

      maven101 8 years ago from Northern Arizona

      I do find it interesting to discover the genesis of her inspiration...the strange relationship between her and Mrs Todd, the adultry of her brother on the " black horsehaired sofa ", her own hinted at relationship with a married pastor, and her self-promotion in her later years...much like the tortured souls of Keats and Byron that produced such genius...Even in music, the life of Beethoven is fascinating and exemplar to his magnificent music...

      Yes, her poetry is evocative and precise, full of drama...But I find its origins just as interesting...Larry

    • barranca profile image

      barranca 8 years ago

      Hi Maven, Thanks for dropping by. I just read a review of a new bio that hypothesized the epilepsy problem. Evidently a couple of her cousins are known to have suffered from it. I can't help but see her as a genius transcending her age. All the stuff about her reclusivity etc just doesn't interest me so much as the poems themselves.

    • maven101 profile image

      maven101 8 years ago from Northern Arizona

      Barranca...Her poetry must be seen in terms of New England individualism, the Emersonian ethos of self-reliance...This ethos must have been shaken badly when she returned from the edge of darkness, confused, frightened, and not a little subdued...Her " I am nobody...Who are you " poem is a great one to use when in the company of someone full of themselves...

      Its been said she suffered from a petite grand mal, a very mild form of epilepsy...this would certainly account for her frequent poetic flights of despair and " Bomb in my bosom ", " My life stands; a loaded gun " references...

      This has been a very interesting take on her poem, of which I am in complete agreement. A remarkable, yet mysterious woman who's poems I have always enjoyed trying to answer her questions on life, love, and circumstance...Thank you for this interesting and well written Hub...Larry

    • barranca profile image

      barranca 8 years ago

      Glad you enjoyed it. Dickinson either is or is next to being my favorite poet. This particular poem is frequently anthologized....not one of the happiest of her poems but one of the strongest.

    • Hello, hello, profile image

      Hello, hello, 8 years ago from London, UK

      I enjoyed your hub very much, thank you.