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On 258 ("There’s A Certain Slant Of Light") Essay, Research Paper


The three poems which combine [Emily Dickinson's] greatest power with her finest

execution are strangely on much the same theme, both as regards the idea embodied and as

regards the allegorical embodiment /293/. They deal with the inexplicable fact of change,

of the absolute cleavage between successive states of being, and it is not unnatural that

in two of the poems this theme should be related to the theme of death. In each poem,

seasonal change is employed as the concrete symbol of the moral change. This is not the

same thing as the so-called pathetic fallacy of the romantics, the imposition of a

personal emotion upon a physical object incapable either of feeling such an emotion or of

motivating it in a human being, It is rather a legitimate and traditional form of

allegory, in which the relationships between the items described resemble exactly the

relationships between certain moral ideas or experiences; the identity of relationship

evoking simultaneously and identifying with each other the feelings attendant upon both

series as they appear separately. [The three poems are], in the order of the seasons

employed, and in the order of increasing complexity both of theme and of technique:

["A Light exists in Spring," "As imperceptibly as grief," and

"There's a certain Slant of light"]. . . . /294/ In the seventh, eighth, and

twelfth lines of ["A Light exists in Spring"], and it is barely possible, in the

seventh and eighth of ["There's a certain slant of light"], there is a very

slight echo of the brisk facility of her poorer work; the last line of ["As

imperceptibly as Grief"], perhaps, verges ever so slightly on an easy prettiness of

diction, though scarcely of substance. These defects are shadowy, however; had the poems

been written by another writer, it is possible that we should not observe them. On the

other hand, the directness, dignity, and power with which these major subjects are met,

the quality of the phrasing, at once clairvoyant and absolute, raise the poems to the

highest level of English lyric poetry.

The meter of these poems is worth careful scrutiny. The basis of all three is the

so-called Poulter’s Measure, first employed, if I remember aright, by Surrey, and after

the time of Sidney in disrepute. It is the measure, however, not only of the great elegy

on Sidney commonly attributed to Fulke Greville, but of some of the best poetry between

Surrey and Sidney, including the fine poem by Vaux on contentment and the great poem by

Gascoigne in praise of a gentlewoman of dark complexion. The English /296/ poets commonly

though not invariably wrote the poem in two long lines instead of four short ones, and the

lines so conceived were the basis of their rhetoric. In ["A Light exists in

Spring"], the measure is employed without alteration, but the short line is the basis

of the rhetoric; an arrangement which permits of more varied adjustment of sentence to

line than if the long line were the basis. In ["As imperceptibly as Grief"], the

first stanza is composed not in the basic measure, but in lines of eight, six, eight, and

six syllables; the shift into the normal six, six, eight, and six in the second stanza, as

in the second stanza of the poem beginning, "Farther in summer," results in a

subtle and beautiful muting both of meter and of tone. This shift she employs elsewhere,

but especially in poems of four stanzas, to which it appears to have a natural

relationship; it is a brilliant technical invention.

In ["There's a certain Slant of Light"] she varies her simple base with the

ingenuity and mastery of a virtuoso. In the first stanza, the two long /163/ lines are

reduced to seven syllables each, by the dropping of the initial unaccented syllable; the

second short line is reduced to five syllables in the same manner. In the second stanza,

the first line, which ought now to be of six syllables, has but five metrical syllables,

unless we violate normal usage and count the second and infinitely light syllable of

Heaven, with an extrametrical syllable at the end, the syllable dropped being again the

initial one; the second line, which ought to have six syllables, has likewise lost its

initial syllable, but the extrametrical us of the preceding line, being unaccented, is in

rhythmical effect the first syllable of the second line, so that this syllable serves a

double and ambiguous function—it maintains the syllable-count of the first line, in

spite of an altered rhythm, and it maintains the rhythm of the second line in spite of the

altered syllable-count. The third and fourth lines of the second stanza are shortened to

seven and five. In the third stanza the first and second lines are constructed like the

third and fourth of the second stanza; the third and fourth lines like the first and

second of the second stanza, except that in the third line the initial unaccented position

is filled and we have a light anapest; that is, the third stanza repeats the construction

/297/ of the second, but in reverse order. The final stanza is a triumphant resolution of

the three preceding: the first and third lines, like the second and fourth, are metrically

identical; the first and third contain seven syllables each, with an additional

extrametrical syllable at the end which takes the place of the missing syllable at the

beginning of each subsequent short line, at the same time that the extrametrical syllable

functions in. the line in which it is written as part of a two-syllable rhyme. The

elaborate structure of this poem results in the balanced hesitations and rapid resolutions

which one hears in reading it. This is metrical artistry at about as high a level as one

is likely to find it. . . .

Emily Dickinson differed from every other major New England writer of the nineteenth

century, and from every major American writer of the century save Melville, of those

affected by New England, in this: that her New England heritage, though it made her life a

moral drama, did not leave her life in moral confusion. It impoverished her in one

respect, however: of all great poets, she is the most lacking in taste; there are

innumerable beautiful lines and passages wasted in the desert of her crudities; her

defects. more than those of any other great /298/ poet that I have read, are constantly at

the brink, or pushing beyond the brink, of her best poems. This stylistic character is the

natural product of the New England which produced the barren little meeting houses; of the

New England founded by the harsh and intrepid pioneers, who in order to attain salvation

trampled brutally through a world which they were too proud and too impatient to

understand. In this respect, she differs from Melville, whose taste was rich and

cultivated. But except by Melville, she is surpassed by no writer that this country has

produced; she is one of the greatest lyric poets of all time. /299/

from "Emily Dickinson and the Limits of Judgment," in In Defense of

Reason, 3rd ed. (Denver, Alan Swallow, 1947), pp. 283-299.


[In "There's a certain Slant of light,"] Emily Dickinson . . . treats an

irrational psychological phenomenon akin to those recorded by Wordsworth in "Strange

fits of passion have I known" ("Down behind the cottage roof, At once, the

bright moon dropp’d. . . . ‘0 mercy!’ to myself I cried, ‘If Lucy should be dead!"’)

and by Tennyson in "Mariana" ("But most she loathed the hour When the

thick-moted sunbeam lay Athwart the chambers, and the day Was sloping toward his western

bower.") A certain external condition of nature induces in her a certain feeling or

mood. But the feeling is more complex than Wordsworth’s or Mariana’s.

The chief characteristic of this feeling is its painful oppressiveness.

"Oppresses," "weight," "hurt," "despair," and

"affliction" convey this aspect. A large component in it is probably

consciousness of the fact of death, though this is probably not the whole of its content

nor is this consciousness necessarily fully formulated by the mind. Yet here we see the

subtle connection between the hour and the mood. For the season is winter, when the year

is approaching its end. And the time is late afternoon (winter afternoons are short at

best, and the light slants), when the day is failing. The suggestion of death is caught up

by the weighty cathedral tunes (funeral music possibly—but hymns are also much

concerned with death—"Dies Irae," etc.) and by "the distance on the

look of death." The stillness of the hour ("the landscape listens, Shadows hold

their breath") is also suggestive of the stillness of death.

But besides the oppressiveness of the feeling, it has a certain impressiveness too. It

is weighty, solemn, majestic, like organ music. This quality is conveyed by "weight

of cathedral tunes," "heavenly ," "seal" (suggesting the seal on

some important official document), and "imperial." This quality of the mood may

be partly caused by the stillness of the moment, by the richness of the slanting sunlight

(soon to be followed by sunset), and by the image of death which it calls up.

The mood gives "heavenly" hurt. "Heavenly" suggests the

immateriality of the hurt, which leaves "no scar"; the source of the

sunlight—the sky; the ultimate source of both sunlight and death—God. The hurt

is given internally "where the meanings are"—that is, in the soul, the

psyche, or the mind-that part of one which assigns "meanings"—consciously

or intuitively—to life and to phenomena like this.

"None may teach it anything"—Both the sunlight and the mood it induces

are beyond human correction or alleviation; they are final and

irrevocable—"sealed." There is no lifting this seal— this despair.

"When it goes, ’tis like the distance On the look of death"—The lines

call up the image of the stare in the eyes of a dead man, not focused, but fixed on the

distance. Also, "distance" suggests the awful distance between the living and

the dead—part of the implicit content of the mood. Notice that the slanted ray and

the mood are still with us here, but are also going. The final remarkable image reiterates

the components of the hour and the mood—oppressiveness, solemnity, stillness, death.

But it hints also at relief—hopes that there will soon be a "distance"

between the poet and her experience.

from "Dickinson’s ‘There’s a Certain Slant of Light,’" The Explicator,

XI (May 1953), Item 50.


One of the very best lyric poems which Emily Dickinson wrote, it seems to me, is

["There's a certain Slant of light"]. . . . /76/

This poem is frequently found in anthologies of American poetry but has seldom been

discussed, as far as I know. Perhaps the explanation is to be found in the poem itself,

which is unquestionably beautiful in its sound, and striking in its imagery, yet resists

definition in terms of a logical, comprehensive statement. This poem, certainly, is one of

those rare poems which are experienced, never completely understood. It seems to me

impossible to read the lines without feeling a tragic, serene emotion which must be akin

to the melancholy about which Keats writes. Emily Dickinson’s poem is much less specific

than the "Ode on Melancholy" in describing the nature of the emotion, but her

poem captures and transmits the experience itself.

In regard to the poem’s meaning, one finds himself perplexed at first. The poet

experiences a profound affliction in the presence of something normally regarded as

cheerful—a ray of light. If, however, one remembers the mystical approach which

characterizes much of Emily Dickinson’s writing, the poem assumes a new meaning. This is

not a mystical poem, but it derives its ethereal quality from the influence of the

mystical aspect of Emily, Dickinson’s viewpoint. Light, itself a characteristic mystical

symbol of the Divine, and perhaps also the natural splendor of the world which the light

reveals and enhances in its afternoon, fading glow, strikes Emily Dickinson with the

irresistible force of an Eternal Power. Not mere speculation is stimulated; an emotional

ecstasy of such intensity that it is an affliction possesses her. Furthermore, it is an

imperial affliction sent us of the air. It is again the mystical concept of the worthiness

of painful ecstasy to promote the complete fulfillment of one’s nature. No other education

is comparable; only the experiencing of "despair" sets the enduring

"seal" upon the soul. One recalls that beauty and truth, alike in their effect,

are for her the agents of supreme human fulfillment and are accompanied by the complex

sensations indescribable except in such paradoxical terms as rapturous pain. The slant of

light, its illumination epitomizing the glorious sublimity of nature, would symbolize for

Emily Dickinson the ultimate realization of truth and beauty. The immensity of light’s

compass, the intangibility of its substance, the mystery of its origin, the all-pervasive

immediacy of its /77/ presence would create in her the sudden awareness of her own

relationship to the natural world and yet of the inevitable change of this relationship at

death. The awareness that she must cease to see the light gives her present vision its

searing acuteness. . . .

An examination of the images in "There’s a certain slant of light" reveals

their extraordinary degree of consistency and appropriateness. The light is presented in

its most effective form. The slant indicates that the light is refracted so that

one may see the beam or ray itself and not just an illuminated surface. The slant is

explained by afternoons. Sunset is near, for "winter afternoons" are

short. The terms winter and afternoon both are suggestive of the end of life. The

lustre and yellow warmth of the light stand out in striking relief in austere winter.

Light compared with cathedral tunes demonstrates a consummate use of imagery in which the

profoundest impressions of one sense are called forth to describe equally profound

impressions of another sense. The senses of sight and hearing, as well as an emotional

tone and a feeling of muscular tenseness in opposing weight, are all involved in the brief

stanza. The nature of the paradoxical "Heavenly hurt" is made evident by the

image of cathedral tunes. Most people are sensible of the sober disquietude that may be

stimulated by great, solemn music, if not by the beauty of nature. The "internal

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