When Mabel Loomis Todd published this poem in the 1890 Poems under the rubric of nature poems, she set a precedent that would be followed by editors for more than half a century. Todd may have seen it as a straightforward response to winter, similar to the Victorian nature poetry that was fashionable at the time; it was among several poems that led Todd to consider Dickinson’s work “Impressionist.” (Farr, Passion, 263). While it remains Dickinson’s most frequently anthologized landscape poem, critics now recognize that the poet was engaged in something very different from a word painting of nature in this poem. As she minutely explores the impact of a “certain Slant” of afternoon winter light, Dickinson reveals the way human emotions are affected by subtle physical perception, on a level beyond rational argument. The slant of light is its own argument, undeniable and unteachable.
The winter light of this poem “oppresses,” not as a passing mood, but as a permanent deformation of the soul, a knowledge that, once admitted, can never be removed. Speaking of Dickinson’s work as a whole, scholar Charles R. Anderson notes that “[s]he . . . separates the lesser pains that will heal from the greater pains that will not and chooses the latter as her special concern, noting with precision their qualities and above all their effects” (“Despair,” 10). Anderson considers Fr 320 Dickinson’s finest poem on “the protean condition of despair” (Ibid., 30). Dickinson’s astonishing feat in this poem is that she somehow transforms light, an image deeply embedded in the human psyche as an emblem of joy, hope, happiness, and salvation, into the “Seal” that signifies existential despair and locks it within the soul. Her certainty of the universality of this experience, reflected in her use of the plural “we,” has been justified by her many readers who have reacted to the poem with a shock of recognition.
The transformation begins in stanza 1, where Dickinson uses synesthesia, the merging of images dependent upon different senses, to evoke the light’s impact:
There’s a certain Slant of light,
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes—
By describing the emotional impact of the light (a visual image) as akin to the heft (a tactile image) of Cathedral tunes (an aural image), she forces the reader into unfamiliar associative territory, while deepening the sensual reality of the experience. Dickinson’s earliest editors did the poem a disservice by replacing Heft, a provincial word that, in her lexicon, denotes something ponderous that requires great effort to lift, with the neutral word weight. The oppressive, ponderous tunes belong not to a familiar “church,” but to an imposing “Cathedral,” evoking the quality of organ music resonating through great empty spaces. Farr suggests that Heft “conveys the difficulty of lifting up the heart, of believing in what cathedrals stand for.” She makes a further, intriguing connection between this poem and the paintings of cathedrals by the English painter John Constable, which were well-known in Dickinson’s region. Juxtaposed to Constable’s “cathedrals bathed in light” and his notion that painting was both poetry and prayer, this poem stands as an ironic antithesis (Passion, 265).
For the very next words, “Heavenly Hurt” link the notions of ecstasy and pain. The phrase, with its repeated h sound (picking up the h of Heft), has the breath release of a sigh. It can be read in several ways. On one level, the phrase implies that the hurt feels heavenly, sublime. Anderson relates it to, “the curious conjoining of ecstasy and despair that pervades most of her writing” (“Despair,” 32), comparing it to such lines as “A perfect—paralyzing Bliss—/ Contented as Despair—” (Fr 767). But another unavoidable connotation is that the hurt is sent by heaven. In what way? Is it that God wounds us? That the very longing for heaven hurts us? That we are hurt by the absence of heaven? That the hurt we feel is “heavenly” in the sense that it is unending, eternal? The fact that “We can find no scar” implies not only that the hurt is not physical but also that we cannot find an emotional scar, either. This wound is at the same time too subtle to be identified and limitless; it leaves no finite, visible scar. It pervades the psyche; for the place it has altered is “Where the Meanings, are—,” including the sense of whether life has any meaning at all. Cultural critic Barton Levi St. Armand characterizes the moment evoked in this poem as Dickinson’s “negative crisis conversion to unbelief” (Culture, 239).
In the first line of stanza 3, “None may teach it—Any—,” it clearly refers to “Heavenly Hurt,” although it refers to the light, in stanzas 2 and 4. Dickinson’s first editors “smoothed out” the line to read “None may teach it anything.” Indeed, this seems the most likely meaning, although other interpretations are possible. Sharon Cameron sees it as an example of how Dickinson is “not choosing how particular words are to be read” and gives three different readings: (1) “None may teach it—[not] Any[one else]—”; (2) “None may teach it—Any[thing]” [it is not subject to alteration]; (3) “None may teach it—[to] Any[one else]—” (“Dickinson’s Fascicles,” 147).
Dickinson is describing a wound that cannot be influenced from outside and thus remains forever fixed. She might be talking about the kind of recalcitrance modern psychology associates with untreated neurotic syndromes. But, although many of Dickinson’s discoveries about the inner life anticipate what modern psychology would uncover, she lived within a different, more spiritual universe of reference. For her, the wound was the “Seal Despair,” a biblical reference to the seven seals of Revelations. Dickinson’s “eighth seal” belongs with the plagues that are sent to afflict mankind. By alluding to an apocalyptic, visionary text, Dickinson suggests a cosmic dimension to her experience. But her “vision” does not go beyond itself, that is, it leads to nothing but the psyche’s awareness of its own pain, as it endures the “imperial affliction” (a variant of “Heavenly Hurt”), whose source is the insubstantial “Air.” This is the poem’s central insight: the paradox that we live in the iron grasp of the ungraspable, so that our deepest convictions are shaped by subtleties of perception of which we are scarcely aware.
In the fourth stanza the poet returns to the surface level of a winter afternoon and draws the natural world into her sense of things, employing a “pathetic fallacy” (the poetic device that attributes human feelings to nature). The listening landscape and shadows holding their breath share the poet’s apprehension and awareness that something momentous is coming (“It” is once again the “certain Slant of Light”). The effect of these lines is to heighten the sense of mystery and suspense, which culminates in the poem’s stunning final image: “When it goes, ’tis like the Distance / On the look of Death—.” The absence of the “certain Slant of Light” is still a terrible presence. The image contains two attempts to place Death at a distance; it says both “it’s not Death but the look of death” and “it’s not the look of death but the distance on the look of death.” But the effect of such distancing is to bring death palpably close. It evokes both “the staring eyes of the dead [and] the awful ‘Distance’ between life and death. . . . The final and complete desolation of the landscape is the precise equivalent of that ‘internal difference’ which the action of the poem has brought about” (Anderson, 32).
Charles R. Anderson, “Despair,” in Modern Critical Views, 28–33, Sharon Cameron, Lyric Time, 100–103, and “Dickinson’s Fascicles,” in Handbook, Grabher et al., eds., 147, 152–155; Judith Farr, Passion, 263–265; Joanne Feit Diehl, Romantic Imagination, 54–55; Barton Levi St. Armand, Emily Dickinson and Her Culture, 239.