There’s A Certain Slant of Light
There’s certain slant of light,
On winter afternoons,
That oppresses, like the weight
of cathedral tunes.
Heavenly hurt it gives us;
We can find no scar,
But internal difference
Where the meanings are
None may teach it anything,
‘Tis the seal, despair,
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the air,
When it comes, landscape listens
Shadows hold their breath;
When it goes, ‘it is like the distance
on the look of death.
Summary: The poem is about the slant rays of light in a winter afternoon. The situation presented in the poem is that of a speaker contemplating the death-like winter afternoon. She is reminded of her own death. The slantness in the light of winter afternoons oppresses the speaker like the grave and heavy cathedral tunes.
The slant of light gives the speaker a heavenly hurt, it is not physical suffering but the suffering of the spirit. She must put up with this suffering because the sources of the suffering are so mysterious and powerful. The focus of nature which inflict pain on man is so powerful that even the landscape shudders at their approaching footsteps and shadows suspend their breath with dread. When they go away, it is like a look of death going away from us.
Stanza Wise Explanation
The season, as well as the time of the day, are suggestive of death. The slant of light on a winter day is given to anthropomorphic qualities. It is oppressive like the sad cathedral tunes. The poet compares the slant rays of the dying day to the melancholy of the cathedral tunes.
Oppresses: Sends a heavy feeling of suffering and pain.
Weight of cathedral tunes: Sad notes of music from the High Mass in a cathedral.
Nature represented by the slant rays of the setting sun in winter is a source of human suffering. Nature causes hurt to human spirit. This clearly reflects the poet’s tragic view of life and dimensions of her despair. The anguish caused by natural forces is not physical but spiritual.
Heavenly hurt: The word ‘heavenly’ suggests that the winter light is symbolic of God. it acts as the agent of God to inflict pain.
We can find no scar: The hurt is internal. It is on the spirit of man where the meaning of things lie.
The air sends an imperial affliction. The word ‘imperial’ implies Emily’s use of ‘air to symbolize God. So, light and air, as agents of God, bring affliction and despair on the spirit of man. None can resist them and none can comprehend their ways.
None can teach it: None can understand the ways of God and nature. They are deceptive.
Imperial affliction: It is like the’heavenly hurt’ ; when it comes the landscape shudders with fear, and shadow suspends their breath. When it goes, it makes little difference. lt still leaves the marks of death.
When it comes: When the light comes with its heavenly hurt,or when the air brings the imperial affliction.
The landscape…..breath: The rest of nature, like the landscape and shadows, trembles with fear.
When it goes….death: When it goes, it is only like a look of death going a little farther from the speaker, that is, it still leaves the speaker pale with lear. The marks of death are left behind.
This poem opens by telling us that there is a certain type of light associated with winter afternoons. The speaker then attempts to capture the ineffable essence of this bleak winter light. It is a light that is likened to the oppressive sound of church bells, and in the next stanza, we learn that it causes ʻHeavenly Hurtʼ. Incredibly, within the opening six lines of the first two stanzas, Dickinson has managed to synthesise a description of this light (and in the process, her depressed state of mind) in terms of the three senses of hearing, sight and touch. It quickly becomes apparent that this light produces a transformation in the speaker.
The poem moves almost imperceptibly from a depiction of the external landscape of a dull winter day to the inner landscape of the soul.
In the second stanza, the speaker posits the notion that the transformation wrought by this ʻHurtʼ is a near-religious one. It comes from heaven and bears a ʻSeal [of] Despairʼ. The use of the word ʻSealʼ may be an allusion by the poet to the Book of Revelation, which speaks of a ʻbook […] sealed with seven sealsʼ. In the speaker’s view, it is something that cannot be taught. It must be experienced for what it is.
An imperial affliction Sent us of the Air
In the final stanza, the speaker conflates the inner and external natures of this experience. It is something that causes the ʻLandscapeʼ to listen and the ʻShadowsʼ to ʻhold their breathʼ. The divisions between what the speaker is feeling and the natural landscape have become blurred and as a the result, the reader is brought closer to understanding the nature of this despair. It is something that harms and frightens the landscape itself. In the final lines of the final quatrain, the landscape holds its breath for some revelation, yet perceives only the ʻlook of Deathʼ.
In this, one of the very finest of her poems, Emily Dickinson has created a metaphor in which feeling and abstraction become inseparable. This unforgettable metaphor embodies the notion that changes in the natural or external world often parallel spiritual changes in the internal world. The poem is typical of Dickinsonʼs poetry in general, in that, it concentrates on the effect on the speaker of the experience that she is highlighting.
In so many of her poems, Dickinson puts forward the notion that the landscape has the power to affect the human psyche. Although Dickinson was deeply influenced by the American Transcendental movement and in particular, by writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman, she does differ from them in a number of key respects. These writers believed contact with nature to be a largely positive experience that had the ability to transport human beings beyond the here and now. In Dickinsonʼs view of the world, these encounters and the changes experienced as a result of them were not always pleasant or positive.
In this poem, for example, the speaker has been hurt and oppressed enough by this ʻSlant of lightʼso as to feel utterly lost and desperate. She experiences the fading of the light with a sense of isolation, arrangement and separation that one would normally associate with death in attempting to convey the experience that is induced by this winter light, the poet employs a range of complex language devices.
In the first stanza, Dickinson relies on a synaesthetic simile. The winter light, which is obviously a purely visual image, is likened to the ʻHeft ‘ Of Cathedral Tunesʼ. Here, the weighty sounds of a cathedral carillon convey to the reader the full burden of the speakerʼs despair. The use of the word ʻHeftʼ complicates the simile even further by suggesting not only the metaphorical weight of this winter light but also a tactile sense of the
oppression that it engenders. Thus, in one short line, the poet suggests that the light is oppressive both physically and metaphysically. Furthermore, such synaesthetic associations, which are a common stylistic feature of Dickinsonʼs poetry in general, break down the boundaries between the senses. Consequently, the confusion experienced by the speaker is mirrored in the poem oo language. Interestingly, the twentieth century poet T.S. Eliot used a similar technique, which he dubbed the ʻobjective correlativeʼ.
The critic Lois Cuddy has demonstrated that many of Dickinsonʼs idiosyncratic constructions were influenced by her study of Latin. Just as a homiletic style provided the foundation for Dickinsonʼs poetic variations,Latinate syntax and grammatical structures (in particular parenthesis and ellipsis) allowed her to create highly individual metres and rhymes. ʻThereʼs a Certain Slant to light’ also demonstrates an exquisite use of sound devices that are matched by disjunctive grammar and intricate levels of poetic diction.
As with nearly every poem by Dickinson on the course, this poem embodies a variation hymnal metre. Growing up with volumes of Isaac Wattʼs hymns in her home, Dickinson adapted homiletic lyric conventions to her own use. Here the poet employs alternating lines of seven and five syllables where tetrameters are followed by trimeters.
Trochees are metric units of two syllables, where the first syllable is stressed and the second is left unstressed. In the poem, Dickinson arranges these in much the same manner as one would expect of a church hymn. If we look at the first two lines of this poem, we can see how intricate the metrical arrangement is: Thereʼs a certain Slant of light, Winter Afternoons. The odd foot (metric unit) of each line ends in a monometer (a metric unit with only one stressed syllable). While the poem is not entirely arranged in this fashion, there are enough instances of this metrical pattern to force the reader to recognize the association with church hymns. Of course, this is most interesting given the fact that heaven is associated with ʻDespairʼ and ʻafflictionʼ.
In a very real sense, the poet is using the form and metre of religious devotional hymns to undermine their message. Some critics, including the poet Adrienne Rich, feel that this subversion of prevailing attitudes is best exemplified in Dickinsonʼs unusual and thought-provoking metaphors. Given the prevailing orthodoxy of the day, Rich argues that Dickinson was forced to ʻretranslate her own unorthodox, subversive, sometimes volcanic propensities into a dialect called metaphor: her native language. Dickinsonʼs metaphors expressed all her emotions in her unique manner.ʼ
Furthermore, Dickinson relies heavily on both exact rhyme and slant rhyme. In her poetry, Dickinson frequently employs slant rhyme or near rhyme when she wishes to disparage a traditional value or idea. Notice how the poet uses exact rhyme in the first and third lines of each quatrain (ʻlightʼ rhymes with ʻHeftʼ, ʻusʼ half rhymes with ʻdifferenceʼ and ʻlistensʼ with ʻDistanceʼ), whereas she relies on the more conventional exact rhyme to end the second and fourth lines (ʻAfternoonsʼ/ ʻTunesʼ, ʻscarʼ/ʻareʼ, ʻDespairʼ /ʻAirʼ and ʻbreathʼ/ʻDeathʼ). The poem provides us with many other examples of Dickinsonʼs style. In particular, capitalized words and dashes are used to end most of the lines.
Capitalized words emphasize the importance of key ideas within the poem. The dashes that punctuate nearly every line of ʻThereʼs a certain Slant of lightʼ not only accentuate the rhythm of the poem but also provide the reader with a sense of openness and ambiguity not afforded by the fullstop.Perhaps the most obvious‒yet also the most difffull stop categorise is Dickinsonʼs unusual use of pathetic fallacy. As the boundaries between the inner and external worlds become weakened, the poetʼs emotions are reflected by the landscape. When Dickinson uses nature imagery in this way, she is appropriating it, as Joanne Feit Diehl says, for the ʻaggrandizement of the mindʼ. In this sense, Feit Diehl goes on to point out that the natural phenomenon ʻbecomes the self as the division between identity and the scene described asdissolvesʼ. The poem also employs personification, alliteration, assonance and sibilant ʻsʼ sounds to convey the sense of menacing dread that this light induces. It is also possible to view this poem as challenging the concept of a Christian God as a benevolent force in the world. Most critics agree that while the poem does not mention God,it nevertheless undercuts Godʼs supreme authority.
Even as early as her time at the evangelical Mount Holyoke Seminary, Dickinson saw herself as an outsider resisting and challenging the religious revivals of her time.
How lonely this world is growing, something so desolate and creeps over the spirit and we don’t know it’s [sic] name, and it won’t go away, either Heaven is seeming greater, or Earth a great deal more small, or God is more ‘Our Father,’ and we feel our need increased. Christ is calling everyone here, all my companions have answered […]
I can’t tell you what they have found, but they think it is something precious. I wonder if it is? How strange is this sanctification, that works such a marvellous change, that shows in such corruption and rises in golden glory, that brings Christ down, and shews him, and lets him select his friends!
1 Explain the terms:
(i) slant of light
(ii) cathedral tunes
(iii) Heavenly hurt
(iv) imperial affliction
Slant of Light: It is a light that is likened to the oppressive sound of church bells, and it causes ʻHeavenly Hurtʼ.
Cathedral tunes: These are sad notes of music from the High Mass in a cathedral.
The weighty sounds of a cathedral carillon convey to the reader the full burden of the speakerʼs despair. The use of the word ʻHeftʼ complicates the simile even further by suggesting not only the metaphorical weight of this winter light but also a the tactile sense of the oppression that it engenders.
Heavenly hurt: The word ‘heavenly’ suggests that the winter light is symbolic of God. it acts as the agent of God to inflict pain.
Imperial affliction: It is like the ‘heavenly hurt’. when it comes the landscape shudders with fear, and shadow suspends their breath. When it goes, it makes little difference. it still leaves the marks of death. It is something that causes the ʻLandscapeʼ to listen and the ʻShadowsʼ to ʻhold their breathʼ
2. Why does the poet think that ‘winter’ and “afternoon” stand for death?
Answer: The slantness in the light of winter and afternoons oppresses the speaker like the grave and heavy cathedral tunes.
3. What is the impact of the cathedral tunes on the poet?
Answer: The weighty sounds of a cathedral carillon convey to the reader the full burden of the speakerʼs despair. The use of the word ʻHeftʼ complicates the simile even further by suggesting not only the metaphorical weight of this winter light but also a tactile sense of the oppression that it engenders.
4. What sort of hurt is caused by nature?
5. How does the poet associate God with human sufferings?
6 How do the landscape and shadows react in the presence of Death?
7 Describe the theme of death as presented by Emily Dickinson in “There’s A Certain Slant of Light”.
Answer: Refer to Summary