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 Sea 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

I don't care for very many of Emily Dickinson's poems -- an attempt a few years ago to become more familiar with her work quickly ended in frustration and boredom because I found them too negative but I know that her simplicity and apparent sincerity are appealing to many. Using her poetry to inscribe her 'heart's record,’ the obscure and double meaning of her technique along with the perplexing and richness of her inscription make the interpretation of her subject an intense and sometimes, futile endeavor.

Dickinson is best when she is surprising and that is evident in There's a certain Slant of light. You may have read that she spent most of her life in her room on the second story of her father's house in Amherst, Massachusetts. It is easy to picture her fancy turning, on one of those countless winter afternoons, to the similarity of slanting sunlight to beams of light through high-church windows. But to transfer that image to the parallel weight of heavy and rich organ music wafting through a cathedral is, I think, very exquisite. It is interesting to note that Emily, a dabbling Congregationalist, might well have been unfamiliar, or only vaguely familiar, with cathedral churches

One of the things I especially like about Dickinson's poetry is the wonderful job she does of capturing images and examining them from unexpected angles, and the 'slant of light, winter afternoons' is one of her most beautiful...the line:

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us—
We can find no scar
is a simply flawless combination of exultation with anguish ... definition comes by negation, there is "no scar." Dealing intensely with her personal state of mind and inner personal life she captures the odd and estranging qualities of winter light, as well as, the depressed or sorrowful state of mind, which this light biochemically induces. The disjunctive grammar is as inconclusive, fragmented, barely knowable as the 'light’ to which Dickinson refers.

An odd personality, shy, and playful, she permitted practically none of her writings to be published during her lifetime. Not until 1890, four years after her death, was the first book of her poems published, to be followed at intervals by other collections. Emily began to write verse about 1850, apparently while under the influence of the poems of Emily Bronte and Ralph Waldo Emerson . She studied under Benjamin F. Newton, a young man who worked in her father's law office. Only a handful of her poems can be dated before 1858, when she began to collect them into small, hand-sewn booklets.

From what I have read about her work, it owes much to the meter of the English hymn writer Isaac Watts and to Shakespeare and the King James Version of the Bible. Her works have influenced later poets with her unique techniques of imperfect rhyme, the tendency to pack brief stanzas with cryptic meanings and avoidance of regular rhythms. It wasn't until 1890, four years after her death, that the first book of her poems were published, in Poems (1890-1896) by Emily Dickinson: A Facsimile Reproduction of the Original Volumes Issued in 1890, 1891, and 1896, with an Introduction by George Monteiro.


Sources:

Bram, Robert Philips, Norma H. Dicky, "Dickinson, Emily Elizabeth," Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia , 1988.

Emily Dickinson:
http://www.geocities.com/edickinson2002/

Emily Dickinson:
http://www.poetrypreviews.com/poets/poet-dickinson.html

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