Yvor Winters, who was as intense in his conviction of Dickinson’s greatness as any could be, thought “There’s a certain Slant of light” to be among her finest poems, and he is right: it’s as fine and strong as a lyric poem can be. Here it is:
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 –
“Certain” is particular and distinct, but also sure, as the light is. The existence of this light is the main source of awe in the poem, such that the flatness of “there’s” is redeemed. But the flatness, felt in the contraction as well as the adverb (there), is also the point, since the awe of the poem is so muted, and there is nothing exuberant in the presentation of this material; of course Winters so much admired a poem that finds, within the prosaic sure-footedness of an urbane letter, an experience of sublimity. It would be wrong to say that she controls the experience, but Dickinson “places” it with the phrase “there’s,” which is established as a statement of existence in the second line, but which also gestures to that which is at hand, immediate.
“Winter afternoons” generalizes the location, but also more firmly defines it; it is in time and, importantly, in New England, where the early evening dusk gives winter afternoons their empty dimness. It’s not a “light” of course but a “Slant” of light, so she refers to the light at a particular time of day, different from day to day throughout the winter, but caught only in that season. It’s obvious to think of slant rhymes, and Dickinson’s famous “tell all the truth but tell it slant.” Things becomes themselves and are felt truly only when oblique. But a curious implication of what she writes here is that light is always approaching at some slant or another, and that it is not enough for it to be slanting: there’s a certain slant that matters. Obliquity is not enough, may be coy affectation or disguise. Or perhaps light (like truth) may always pass along a slant—but not all slants are equivalent, not all as powerful as this one.
The word “that,” though a coordinating pronoun also has a curious double-ness similar to “there’s,” such that it is possible to hear Dickinson exclaiming: “That oppresses!” as if something is, in the writing of the poem itself, being done to her. The dashes permit, possibly even invite, this fracturing of syntactic possibilities, but in this poem the fracturing happens less frequently, more pointedly, than in others. “Oppresses” is social and affective, a dynamic of power and judgment and control, but “Heft” draws out “presses” so that we are asked to feel the physical pressure of the light at this angle; as a matter of the situation she’s describing, the light striking eyes, say, through barren trees, while walking or sitting by a window, might be thought physically oppressive, to have a strange “Heft.” Despite the flicker of a cry in “That,” Dickinson does not seem to be, as she writes, oppressed in any way; the poem is detached from the experience it describes, recounting rather than dramatizing.
A “Cathedral” is bulky with “Heft,” but the joke of making it modify “Tunes” would seem to rob “Heft” of its mass. Perhaps there is nonetheless a joke there since Cathedral “tunes” are sung during “mass” and so have a “heft” in that sense. The simile is remarkable for how quickly it takes on the consequence of a metaphor: transforming the experience so that we are placed within the immensity of a Cathedral, as airy as the outdoors in which the slant of light passes, the entire world now a Cathedral in fact, with the light oppressing like the “heft” of a Cathedral “tune” echoing through the vaulting; it’s an old World image, Nature as a Cathedral, and Dickinson may have in mind Shakespeare’s sonnet in which the rooks on bare (for Shakespeare, Autumnal) branches resemble a quire. At any rate, “tunes” is the Dickinson touch that it is difficult to imagine even thinking to make: it looks down on the hymns or choral chants of the Cathedral, it reduces their heft again to something small and manageable; the light is greater than them—it oppresses as they do, but we are not to feel that they exceed it, or that they are true equivalents. It keeps the simile in its place as simile.
At the same time, it makes the Cathedral and the light both more intimate, more familiar; the oppression is domestic and she is at home in the vaulting of the winter afternoon, feeling acquainted with the light and the tunes alike. The light gives “Heavenly hurt,” where “heavenly” is both the colloquially lax equivalent of “wonderful” and also a rigorously Christian “in the presence of divinity.” As if once again to keep “tunes” in their place, “it gives us” directs us to the “slant of light,” away from the plural tunes, though it does accept the singular “Heft” as its subject—but that Heft is the quality of the tunes, not their essence, as it were, and it is the Heft of the light that gives the hurt.
“Gives” is the verb rather than “hurt” because she wants to admit both that the slant of light causes or brings hurt but also that it bestows it; the hurt is a gift, which is why it can be casually, breathlessly “wonderful” too. One thinks of the pain of light during a migraine, relevant for Dickinson. “Us,” however, reprimands the future reader who would like to believe that this is an experience true for Dickinson’s physiology alone. Others have felt the same; she is explaining to one who knows, perhaps for reassurance, perhaps to help the other person understand, and perhaps to speak for all. “We” allows that they look for the scar together, even if the wound is intensely individual. Dickinson, like Hopkins, is a poet of the abrupt self, but here the self is absorbed into a common experience that proclaims no idiosyncrasy in experience or expression. The poem is not good because it speaks to a commonality, but the commonality to which it speaks is a part of its goodness. “Can” because it is not possible to find a “scar,” a wound; that might be owing to the hurt being delivered to the eyes, where the light penetrates into the self, but it also is because the hurt leaves no scar except in the experience of receiving it. “We can find” admits that there might be one who can find a scar; it just might not be a scar visible to earthly human senses. But “find” also suggests that she is moving beyond “sight,” admitting that scars might be psychological too.
At any rate, we are being told that the “internal difference” is not itself a scar. It is the record of being changed by affliction, without scarring; it might be itself identical to the hurt; it is a sort of mystical experience. The word “difference” excites anyone who has studied English at an advanced level, and it should excite anyone, just not for those reasons. It does not require a background in Saussure for Dickinson to realize that meanings are found in difference themselves; anyone with her sense of rhyme would be able to make a similar claim without developing a linguistic theory. The differences are presumably internal to the self, though it could be that they are internal not to the “I” or the “eye,” but to the “we” (and she may have even been chary of the first-person in a poem so centered on the seeing eye); if the difference is found in the “we,” the commonality of the poem is quite narrow, the poem an expression of intimacy in which few can participate.
One thing about saying only that there’s a difference is that little more can be said; it nears the generality of a metaphysical statement on identity and non-identity. The next line similar draws back from the particular: “meanings” indicates something is to be found, and something that has import, bearing, significance, expressibility, but it does not say anything about what is to be found. It’s possible to read the remainder of the poem as expounding those meanings or it’s possible to read the remainder of the poem as moving on from them. The most baffling aspect of the “difference” and “meanings,” to me, is that the former is singular and the latter plural, so that the single “internal difference” is home to many “meanings.” It is rich in possibilities. That is why I prefer to think they remain latent, rather than explored or expressed, in the rest of the poem. The comma after “meanings” does not seem especially consequential to me, though one could whimsically read it emblematically, or as a difference without meaning, as if a negative contrast to the sort of difference she means.
The play of singular and plural seems quite deliberately an effort to help the reader since “None may teach it” gives us another singular that lines up with “difference” or else with “Hurt,” It’s difficult to think, then, that she’s going on to explore the “meanings” that are found at or within the “internal difference.” It’s a difference that none may teach any of; but it might also be a difference that “none may teach, which is as good to say that any may teach, since everyone is doomed to failure.” We’re at least given an explanation for why she doesn’t enter into a discussion of the difference: she is not going to try to explain it; she will instead register it; place it; discern it; it’s a beautiful sense of the limitations of the poem, of the imagination, and of language. “Tis” is again the “internal difference”: it is not the seal of Despair, but is instead “Despair” as a seal. Despair of this nature cannot be taught. But more properly, it “may” not be taught: it is not permitted. By whom? God, presumably: God has not permitted us to teach the despair of Heavenly Hurt. On the alternative reading where “it” refers to “Hurt,” the same holds.
The difference of “Seal of Despair” and “seal Despair” is of real import: a seal of despair would mean the light is the despair leaving behind the seal of the internal difference. The “seal Despair” would mean the “internal difference” is “despair-as-a-seal.” A seal closes a scroll or letter, and that, naturally, is where the “Meanings” are to be found. The metaphor is not fully developed in the poem but sustains the logic of the lines, unites the thinking; it shows just how latent a metaphor may lie while still guiding a poet’s thought. “Imperial affliction” because the seal is the seal of an empire (God’s) and the affliction is, again, heavenly. But “affliction” gives a sense of permanence; it is not a scar because or although the wound remains, the hurt remains (the hurt and the seal and the internal difference might all be the same, syntactically). We need to see, as we read, that the “Heavenly hurt,” “the internal difference,” and the “seal despair” are one and the same, the light sent through the air, like a letter.
The dashes work to clear effect in this poem—there is no need to come up with a general theory of Dickinson’s punctuation—since they permit the repeated and unspecified “it” to point back to either the “seal despair,” the “internal difference,” or the “light” itself, and in fact to point back to all at once. (Again: the light gives the hurt, but is also itself the hurt, just as it is itself the internal difference, even as it could be said to create the internal difference, and just as it is the seal despair and as it imprints the seal despair internally; there is no teaching the hurt, the difference, or the light.) The openness of the “it” is crucial for the final stanza of the poem.
Some critics have remarked that Dickinson’s poems do not end with the same strength that they begin, but this one at least does. The “it” takes hold of all the poem before it: when the light, the hurt, the internal difference, the seal despair, the affliction come…the landscape listens. In so far as “it” refers to the light, the landscape is directed towards a divinity alien to it; in so far as “it” refers to the internal difference and hurt, it listens to the human experience of divinity. “Listens” recalls us to the Cathedral tunes, but does so only for us to notice their absence: everything has descended into the silence of the light. There is nothing to hear, and yet there is something to be said. Perhaps we are to think again of the meanings which lie sealed by despair, and the landscape straining to listen to what it is not for the landscape to hear—and not for anyone to hear who has not been struck, as the “we” of the poem, by this certain slant of light.
But then Dickinson does something else remarkable which is to imagine what it would be to know a landscape is listening: “shadows.” The way in which that word is set between two dashes allows us to read it first as an event, an occurrence indicative of the listening landscape. And the thought is not preposterous: people shut their eyes when they focus their hearing and the landscape, by descending into shadows, does the same. But in so imagining the landscape, she brings us back to the presence of light: the landscape listening to the light is for the landscape to descend into darkness—the difference of dark and light is what allows the light to be heard. And that idea is then developed even further, since it’s the shadows that hold their breath, as if they do not want the sound of their presence to interfere with the light. She must be holding her breath; she is, for an instant, at one with the landscape (could this be the “we”?). The whole poem has built to this: identifying what happens not inside herself, but to the landscape itself when the certain slant of light that represents so momentous an internal change, is cast upon it.
If we imagine the poem as a letter, we can imagine also, now, what it answers: “What happens when this strange light that you speak of is cast?” Or “remind me again of what it is like when we feel so intensely the presence of God?”. But it’s not so much the shadows holding their breath that distinguishes this light from others; it’s what happens when it departs, when the slant changes or the world goes dim with dusk: “When it goes” as it always of course must “ ‘tis like the Distance”: what I find especially wonderful in that line is how the conclusion of the poem’s thought and being is felt in the shift of “it” to “’Tis”. Whereas “it,” until and through its final appearance in that line, carries with it all at once the light, the hurt, the seal despair, the inner difference, “tis” contains none of these. The sudden evacuation of the word, its becoming once more its mundane self, responds to what she describes: the sudden departure of the light.
“It” is no longer what it was; nothing is. In fact, it is not even “it”; now “it” is “’tis.” And yet “’tis” is not attached to a cramped object. What that “tis” means is: the entire world, the experience, life itself. But now all of those are emptied out, “like the distance,” a phrase that stands on its own with marvelous suggestiveness: with the definite article “the,” “distance” is given geographical specificity, even though it can only always refer to the part of geographical experience that is not immediate, that is temporally and physically far, and that cannot be clearly made out. Life is like that now; no longer as immediate as it was. And yet the word “tis” cannot help but retain a vestige of the word “it” just as dusk retains a vestige of the light of day: but now the light that remains ‘tis’ like the distance. That is, it’s not just that the light is far away, but that it seems to be like that which is distance itself, never near by its very definition. But I think that is a minor suggestion behind the main sense: that life and experience are itself, in the absence of the light, like the distance now. That syntactical possibility is held until the end of the line, which breaks into the next: “the distance | on the look of death.”
“On” is unsettling, recalling us to the light that had fallen on the landscape; and it pushes back against the interiority of “in.” There is nothing internal to the “look of death.” “Distance on the look of death” suggests the vacant stare of the dead, into the distance; it suggests the distance of the dead from the living, we the living “look” at death (“look of” doing something similar to “sight of” here); it also identifies the lack of interiority that accompanies death with distance that we cannot fathom, measure, or cover. “Death,” the last word of the poem, could be in the eyes of the living, no longer receiving that certain slant of light, now themselves the dead-in-life; it could be the “look of Death,” with death as a skeletal figure dancing in the Medieval and Renaissance tradition; it could be, as I’ve said, the look of a dead face; it could also be the distance one feels when looked on by death, and it is this last that I find most compellingly relevant, not crowding out the other possibilities but necessary to bring them together: the distance that opens up when death looks on the living is a distance from God, from nature, from others. But it is also the normal state of things, since the certain slant of light is only that, a certain slant; and this is perhaps why it carries the seal despair. Being but a certain slant, at and for a certain time, it can only serve to make apparent the deathly distance of time and the world, and perhaps God, as they are otherwise known. But then, perhaps the experience of that is the internal difference, “where the Meanings are.”