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 Meaning,s 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, ‘t is like the Distance
On the look of Death—

“There’s a Certain Slant of Light” was written in 1861 and was not published until 1890 by Dickinson’s friend and mentor, Thomas Higginson. Through four stanzas written with the rhyme scheme ABCB, Dickinson expresses the internal, spiritual melancholy she experiences while observing light slanting through a window on a winter afternoon.

Dickinson takes a surprising view on the light slanting through her window. Instead of marveling at the traditionally positive symbolism of light, Dickinson writes that the light “oppresses,” as if the direction of the slant makes it feel as though the light is pressing down on her. The feeling is so powerful that, “the Landscape listens,”and “Shadows -hold their breath.” The emotion is hard to describe and is as complicated as nature itself. That is why the effects of this feeling cannot be seen on the outside; “We can find no scar.” The experience is psychological, “Where the Meanings are.” It is “internal”, heavy like the “heft/ of Cathedral Tunes.” The oppressiveness she feels is sad; however, it is necessary for the speaker to evolve. The word “heft” means weight and significance, but it also suggests upward motion, as if overcoming the oppressive heaviness brings the speaker to “imperial” heights. (MK). All who suffer pain or grief must overcome their sadness to find meaning and grow from their suffering. Suffering “’tis the seal, despair/ An imperial affliction.” After the worthwhile transformation, the speaker feels as though she has moved further along on her journey through life, and is therefore closer to death, “tis like the Distance/ On the look of death.”

Dickinson’s view of God is exemplified in “There’s a certain Slant of Light”. At seventeen, “Dickinson quietly defied both official and peer pressure to experience a conversion to Christianity. Dickinson later admitted in a letter that she secretly worried that somehow she had willfully put herself beyond God’s grace by her rebellion” (Gale). This makes sense of the phrases, “Cathedral Tunes,” and “Heavenly Hurt.” Dickinson saw religion as oppressive and she chose not to align herself with it the way her peers did. Dickinson grew closer to God through experiences, “None may teach it.” The heaviness she speaks of in “There’s a certain Slant of Light”, embodies her personal thoughts on the fear of change necessary for transformation, overcoming grief, and perhaps indirectly, Dickinson’s relationship with the Church. Though the poem describes the oppressiveness Dickinson feels, it also leaves hope for an uplifting experience, despite the fact that in the end Dickinson is brought closer to death.

Bibliography and Further Reading Emily Dickinson and Thomas H. Johnson. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. London 1998); MK, Rukhaya. “Literary Analysis: Emily Dickinson’s “There’s a Certain Slant of Light” Books, Literature, and Writing (2012) ; Museum, Emily Dicknson. “The Posthumous Discovery of Dickinson’s Poems.” Homestead and The Evergreens (2009): Emily Dickinson Museum.

Credits Composed by Rose O’Callaghan, Spring 2017.


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American Poetry and Poetics Copyright © 2017 by Mark C. Long is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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