There’s a certain Slant of light

Emily Dickinson

‘There’s a certain Slant of light’ by Emily Dickinson is a thoughtful poem. It depicts a metaphorical slant of light and how it influences the speaker.

Emily Dickinson

Nationality: America

Emily Dickinson redefined American poetry with unique line breaks and unexpected rhymes.

Notable works include 'Because I could not stop for Death' and 'Hope is the Thing with Feathers.' 

Key Poem Information

Central Message: Nature can bring on important reflections

Themes: Death, Nature, Religion

Speaker: Likely Emily Dickinson

Emotions Evoked: Confidence, Contentment

Poetic Form: Quatrain

Time Period: 19th Century

Dickinson uses this poem to reflect on several different feelings and allude to religious influences.

This poem was first published in 1890. However, in this edition, the poem was altered, and it was published in its original form in 1955. ‘There’s a certain Slant of light’ has four quatrains, which vary the hymn meter. The poem alternates lines of seven and five syllables in a trochaic pattern of four stresses and three stresses. However, the metric unit of each line ends in a monometer. The rhythm and the stress will vary throughout the poem, but this is the general pattern.

Emily Dickinson is known for her unusual use of punctuation, and ‘There’s a certain Slant of light’ is an example of that. Notice the dashes and the commas in the middle of the lines. These are used by Dickinson to slow down the pace of the poem and control the rhythm and the musicality of the stanzas.

‘There’s a certain Slant of light’ has several main themes. These include nature and the importance of its meaning, God and religion, alienation and loneliness, and death. The poem depicts how a “certain Slant of light” oppresses the lyrical voice. This light will be impossible to describe, but as the stanzas go by, the lyrical voice will try to put into words how this light affects him/her.

There's a certain Slant of light
Emily Dickinson

There's a certain Slant of light,Winter Afternoons –That oppresses, like the HeftOf 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 afflictionSent us of the Air –

When it comes, the Landscape listens –Shadows – hold their breath –When it goes, 'tis like the DistanceOn the look of Death –
There's a certain Slant of light by Emily Dickinson

There’s a certain Slant of light Analysis

First Stanza

There’s a certain Slant of light,

Winter Afternoons –

That oppresses, like the Heft

Of Cathedral Tunes –

The first stanza begins by setting the scene. The first lines depict a particular time of the year, “Winter Afternoons”, with a particular feel, “a certain Slant of light”. Notice the capitalizations in the first few lines (“Slant”, “Winter Afternoons”, “Heft”, and “Cathedral Tunes”) and how these emphasize their significance. The lyrical voice furthers on this “Slant of light” and characterizes it as oppressive. There is a simile between “Heft” and “Cathedral Tunes”, and these describe how the lyrical voice feels about the “certain Slant of light”. The rhyme scheme of this stanza is ABCB and it has an alternation between iambic tetrameter and trimeter. Moreover, notice the syntax in these first lines and how the commas and dashes divide and accentuate information while establishing a particular rhythm.

Second Stanza

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –

We can find no scar,

But internal difference –

Where the Meanings, are –

The second stanza describes the internal and religious thoughts that the lyrical voice possesses. The first line of the stanza starts with an oxymoron, “Heavenly Hurt”, which furthers on the idea given in the previous paragraph (the “Slant of light” is as oppressive as “Cathedral Tunes”).  The suffering that the lyrical voice depicts is internal, as “We can find no scar, but internal difference”. The lyrical voice uses natural imagery, like the winter setting or the light, to express certain internal struggles. The conflict of the lyrical voice appears to be in the “internal difference –/ Where the Meanings, are – ”. The dashes have a crucial role in this stanza, as they separate certain ideas, making them independent from the rest, but, at the same time, they act as a connection between these ideas, building a deeper and bigger meaning.

Third Stanza

None may teach it – Any –

‘Tis the seal Despair –

An imperial affliction

Sent us of the Air –

The third stanza continues with the issues of the previous lines. The opening of this stanza refers to the “Heavenly Hurt” and “internal difference” that are mentioned in the second stanza. The lyrical voice states that no one can teach you about these subjects because they are impossible to define. The word “Any” refers to the subjectivity of the “internal difference” and notice how this word is written between dashes to emphasize its meaning. Hence, these subjects turn to be “the seal Despair”, due to the fact that they can’t be clearly explained. Notice how the conflict within the lyrical voice has evolved from “a certain Slant of light” to “the seal Despair”. However the metaphor “imperial affliction/Sent us of the Air” returns to the idea of the beginning, to the “certain Slant of light”. This metaphor sums up all of the lyrical voice’s despair and suffering. Also, notice the use of natural imagery to reflect the lyrical voice’s internal conflicts (“Sent us of the Air”).

Fourth Stanza

When it comes, the Landscape listens –

Shadows – hold their breath –

When it goes, ’tis like the Distance

On the look of Death –

The final stanza has strong natural imagery. The lyrical voice describes how nature listens to everything and everyone (“the Landscape listens – /Shadows – hold their breath – ”). The scene appears to be similar to that of the first stanza, where the “Slant of light” is described in the “Winter Afternoon”, as nature appears to be still and mysterious. Notice the personification of nature and how it mediates the lyrical voice’s internal struggles with the external world. Moreover, the capitalizations emphasize this personification and the meaning these words have for the lyrical voice.

The lyrical voice mentions that when the light disappears (“When it goes”) it is similar to death (“ ‘tis like the Distance/On the look of Death–”). All the lines in the poem build-up to this moment where the lyrical voice compares the “certain Slant of light” to death, using macabre imagery that relates to the mystery of the “Slant of light”. The dashes are crucial in this last stanza, as they provide a different pace to the poem, accentuating the difference in the tone of these last lines. Furthermore, the poem ends with a dash rather than with a full stop. This emphasizes the idea of uncertainty and the internal conflicts that the poem presents. Rather than obtaining a certain answer, the reader is given further questions with this last dash.

About Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson was born in 1830 and died in 1886. She is one of the most recognized American poets of all time. Throughout her life, Dickinson rarely left her house and her visits were few, as she lived in almost total isolation. Nevertheless, she kept contact with a very small number of people, which had a great impact on her works and her poetry. Moreover, Emily Dickinson was greatly influenced by the metaphysical poets, a group of poets in seventeenth-century England. She liked, especially, the poetry of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and the works of John Keats.

Emily Dickinson wrote a great number of poems during her lifetime. However, she wasn’t recognized and acknowledged for her literary talent until after her death. In 1890, the first volume of her work was published. After she died, Dickinson’s family found forty handbound volumes containing nearly 1800 poems each. Initially, these poems were published according to the aesthetics of her early editors, who removed her dashes and unusual punctuation and changed the text. However, nowadays, the publishers try to remain closer to Dickinson’s intention by maintaining typography, punctuation, and syntax.

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Julieta Abella Poetry Expert
Julieta has a BA and a MA in Literature and joined the Poem Analysis team back in May 2017. She has a great passion for poetry and literature and works as a teacher and researcher at Universidad de Buenos Aires.
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