Emily Dickinson, "There's a certain Slant of light" (258)

I want to begin 2024 by talking about Dickinson's "There's a certain Slant of light."

Emily Dickinson, "There's a certain Slant of light" (258)

I want to begin 2024 by talking about Dickinson's "There's a certain Slant of light." One of the questions we are confronting is whether the awful circumstances of our time give those especially cognizant of them insight. To illustrate, I'll use an example directly relevant to us but at a distance from the poem. It does feel like a lot of facts written about Nazis lay dormant in various books for years and now have to be internalized. Not just known, but made part of how we see the world. If this is done, it does seem that a tragic wisdom obtains, one which future generations should at least take careful note of.

In the poem, Dickinson deals with a personal set of circumstances we readily recognize. Many have faced the day through the window and wondered what the point of it was. "There's a certain Slant of light... / That oppresses" is her fundamental concern. This "Slant of light" does not only give "Heavenly Hurt" and "Despair;" it leads to some kind of knowledge, something that stops time. As Dickinson says, "the Landscape listens – / Shadows – hold their breath."

I can't say that Dickinson finds a tragic wisdom which complements what we're learning through social and political turmoil. I can say that the personal question is worth working through as we'd like to know whether wisdom can exist at all. Someone actually wise might think that a silly concern. Who cares if the knowledge you need is relative to the situation, as long as you have the knowledge you need? I'd advise them to reserve judgment for a moment. It's important to know we can convey an understanding of our situation for those who want to hear. It's important to show that some uses of knowledge are profound.

There’s a certain Slant of light (258)
Emily Dickinson

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 —

I have found Laurence Perrine's commentary to be useful in clarifying my own position. Perrine sees Dickinson's "Slant of light" as achieving a certain complexity. The "Slant of light" isn't reducible to anxiety or even despair, as it might be in other poems. It is a mood closer to "consciousness of the fact of death," which, as he remarks, may not be "fully formulated by the mind" and may only be an introduction to other ideas. Perrine's reading is thoughtful, moving us to consider how the fact of death washes over us, dominates our mind, and then disappears. For my part, I have to more closely consider how moods aren't simply emotional states, but states which lend themselves to certain kinds of thinking.

However, I do have my own reading of the poem. "There's a certain Slant of light" is not necessarily a mood. It is a "Slant of light," related to enlightenment, knowledge acquisition, and realization. This "Slant of light" comes with an entire atmosphere of its own, "Winter Afternoons," which I envision as a gray landscape with a whitish and perhaps fading light. And this "Slant of light" oppresses, "like the Heft of Cathedral Tunes."

This, I believe, is a specific moment for an intellectual. You once tried to be religious. Maybe you thought that if traditions were properly interpreted, they could be useful to all. Or you thought that the good had to have divine backing, as we want the good we do to be fruitful and multiply. Or maybe you didn't want to tell little old ladies who love to pray that there are serious injustices in which religious communities and traditions partake. So you left the faith, but not all light is clarifying or bright. If there is a light of reason, it might be gray and bleak also. It can bring to mind "the Heft of Cathedral Tunes," as the question which torments is What are you doing? Only the most vapid excuse for an intellectual wouldn't care about this.

The second stanza, on my reading, resolves the dilemma but at a cost. "Heavenly hurt" does not occur like earthly hurt; sticks and stones leave scars. Where "heavenly hurt" arises there is "internal difference" over "meanings." Her verse is mystical, but this meaning, ironically enough, is clear. "Meanings" are situated in the self, and the "internal difference" must involve a fight within the self. Otherwise, the pain would involve a "scar." In physical combat, or even in a debate, those of us who are looking to win want some indication that our opponent is faltering.

That logic leads to the crucial idea which unlocks this poem: for Dickinson, the life of the mind is itself a divine agony. One continually wrestles most unlike Jacob, for there is no resolution. In this case, the divine is also not earthly. But it does not offer compensation that gives easy answers, or any answers. Wittgenstein once wondered aloud if it was possible to write a work in philosophy that was nothing but questions. He gave voice in doing so to all that philosophy is.

The question What are you doing? is transmuted. It resides in a "Slant of light" (earthly), which gives unto us "Heavenly Hurt" (an earthly but scarless pain). The issue of divinity is ever present. It does not ground one's anxiety, as the tribunal is not before God, but it emerges as it will, especially in the shadow of death.

In the third stanza, we confront the limit of reason. "None may teach it – Any –." What is unteachable is an impulse, a will to action and purposeful ignorance, or is something that does teach. "None" signifies to me the authority of this unteachable thing, “any” signifies that it is like an impulse. This erupts into "Tis the Seal Despair." Why not "of" despair? Why not "Tis the Seal, Despair?" I think Dickinson suggests something along the following lines: We look for final answers and first causes. We’re never satisfied even with a comprehensive outlook, for that itself is a perspective. The project which is immortal itself is ended abruptly not merely by mortality – I mean, awareness of mortality is all throughout this poem – but by the fact that if the quest ended, we would cease being human. To be human is to be rational and to be rational is to be incomplete. Properly speaking, Aquinas is right – reason is an attribute of the divine, not constitutive of what it is. What makes us, the rational animal, what we are is an "imperial affliction / Sent us of the air."

The fundamental questions of belief cannot be avoided by rationality. They come again and threaten to paralyze everything: "the Landscape listens — / Shadows — hold their breath." This cannot be avoided; one must wait. The hope is that one might do justice to the terror inspired. "When it goes, ’tis like the Distance / On the look of Death." To circle back to the beginning of these remarks, I don't know how one can be conscious that one's own rational faculties demand meaning and not have wisdom. Also, not to defend excessive doomscrolling, but it would seem collection and curation of what we're witnessing does matter.