Week 210: There’s a certain Slant of light, by Emily Dickinson

I find this piece haunting, the more so because it is one of those poems that seem to give up their full meaning only slowly over the course of a lifetime. For me it is about those mysterious moments of alertness that we probably all have, those intimations of some platonic parallel world that trouble us with a sense of lost chances, of a realm where not only do things go better for us but we ourselves are better. It is linked in my mind, and not just by reason of the ‘cathedral tunes’ simile, with one of my all-time favourite pieces of music, Vaughan Williams’s ‘Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis’. When I listen to that I know exactly what ‘heavenly hurt’ is, and what ‘imperial affliction’ can be sent us of the air. And yet, while the poem may speak of hurt, and of a despair for the fading of the vision which is like a small death, there is a kind of uplift about it as well. For it is no small part of our humanity, that at least we are vulnerable to these intimations of the better, that we have our place in that landscape that listens, among those silent shadows.

There’s a certain Slant of light

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

7 thoughts on “Week 210: There’s a certain Slant of light, by Emily Dickinson

  1. Hello David,
    Somehow I sense echoes of “And Death Shall Have No Dominion” (Dylan Thomas)
    Both poems as you say, give up their meaning slowly.
    “Though lovers be lost love shall not;
    And death shall have no dominion.”

    All the best


    • Hi Gareth

      Interesting, I would never have thought of a connection between Emily Dickinson and Dylan Thomas; in fact I find it quite hard to relate Emily Dickinson to any other poet, she’s so distinctive, like Gerard Manley Hopkins. But Thomas was certainly very well read in poetry, so who knows.


  2. ” ’tis like the Distance / On the look of Death” – perhaps it means that looking into Death’s face one sees one’s own death in the distance?

    • I would take it more as a reflection on the way the dying recede from us, much as we might want to keep them close. It’s linked it my mind with Frost’s lines: ‘The nearest friends can go/With anyone to death, comes so far short/They might as well not try to go at all’.

      • Hi David, I like your suggestion (though I put my own slant on it). Yes Death has distance in his look? And when the light goes that seems to be it (the distance in Death’s look)?

  3. The poem is Johnson #258. “None may teach it” – no one can teach what the slant of light teaches? “it” in the last verse is Despair? “imperial” [adjective] – majestic or magnificent.

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