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Featured Poem: There’s A Certain Slant Of Light by Emily Dickinson

Written by The Reader, 20th November 2017

This week we're dipping back into the mists of time for our Featured Poem and a recommendation from Vic during her time working on the Wirral Get into Reading project.

This week's Featured Poem has been chosen by Get Into Reading Wirral Project Worker Victoria Clarke, who muses upon the contradictions, the dark and 'certain slant of light' within Emily Dickinson's poetry...

This enigmatic poem, so markedly observational in tone, feels so intimate, I feel I am almost trespassing in reading it. I imagine I am sat just a short distance away from the poet, who is thinking these thoughts aloud and staring wanly into the space of sky before her.

I like the phrase ‘There's a certain slant of light,’. These words define this quality of light as different, separate from other types of light. There is something about its quality that captures the speaker and fixes them in the moment. ‘Slant’ makes me think about seeing something from a particular angle: does it allude to perspective?

The first time I read the poem I recall experiencing a lighting up effect. I felt I recognised the experience being described and felt how this kind of light -

‘oppresses, like the heft
Of cathedral tunes.’

My experience of this kind of event is that witnessing a certain slant of light (indeed, experiencing the onset of despair) could be described as if the light suddenly appears to be trying to tell me something of great import, something I’m supposed to understand about the greater scheme of things. It has a timelessness to it that seems outside of the everyday and it compels me, if only for a moment, to step outside of ordinariness and acknowledge some wider truth. But grasping what that wider truth is or what it corresponds to is another matter.

I am also aware there is an undercurrent of egotism at work in this thought. But egotism goes with the territory. I am reminded here of Gerald Manley Hopkins’ poem, No Worst, There Is None:

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who never hung there.

If you’ve not experienced this feeling, those that have may hold you cheap. The egotism – if it can even be called that; solipsism may be closer to the truth – in this is the sense of being part of an exclusive club. It is unavoidable: for some to have any experience that can be defined as special, relies on others not to have done so.

For a poem that deals in despair, Dickinson’s poem doesn’t deal with it in a straightforward way. I’m interested in her use of the word ‘heft’ which means a weight but also implies a physical size. Used in connection with ‘cathedral tunes’, it brings to mind the image of thunderous organs whose immense pipes run up the walls of cathedrals, towards Heaven, and fill the place with music that indeed is designed as an elevating experience for the listener with eyes turned upward. But this idea is complicated by the word ‘oppresses.’ It is a complex juxtaposition. The music is as big as the cathedral, and as heavy too. To have that bearing down on you - it feels like the speaker is overwhelmed.

In the next stanza, we are given a sense of exquisite agony in the first line:

Heavenly hurt it gives us;
We can find no scar,
But internal difference
Where the meanings are

Heavenly hurt? ‘Oppresses, like the heft/Of cathedral tunes’ and, in stanza three, ‘imperial affliction’? There is something neither wholly negative nor wholly positive happening here, isn’t there? And those lines –

We can find no scar,
But internal difference
Where the meanings are

The idea is that this change, which is perhaps spiritual in nature, is on the inside and that this is where the ‘meanings’ are. Within us? Yet the speaker is looking out at a certain slant of light in the sky. Outwards; inwards. We are at the border between day and night, light and dark, ecstasy and despair, life and death. There are tantalising, contradictory forces at work in this poem.

There's A Certain Slant Of Light 

There’s a 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,
T is 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.

Emily Dickinson

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