Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Emily Dickinson : There's a certain slant of light

There's a certain slant of light,
On winter afternoons,
That oppresses, like the weight
Of cathedral tunes.
Heavenly hurt it gives us;
We can find no scar,
But internal difference
Where the meanings are.

None may teach it anything,
'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, 't is like the distance
On the look of death.

Interior of Salisbury Church by Turner
I first encountered this poem perhaps 5 or 6 years ago, when some publisher was publishing some pretty hardcover volumes of poetry, slim and with a white cover and a ribbon bookmark attached to the spine. This caught my eye (it was printed on the back.) I did not buy it however, as the book was expensive for someone at school, and I instead bought Elizabeth Barrett Browning. 
Interesting she mentions the cathedral and heavenly. So I presume it is some theological matter Emily is concerned over. I suppose the slant of light is like the rays of the sun, which can be seen as an enlightenment as well as an oppression - which are paradoxical qualities. Again, winter and light are paradosical. When reading winter you think of night or evening, not day, and it is darkness, not light that comes to mind. Still, the T's in line 1 would make a T sound in winter in line 2 sound better and weightier. I must say Emily was a master of sound.

It is this enlightenment that hurts us in a heavenly way of all things - strange qualities to juxtapose. Possibly this truth is wholesome and yet disillusioning. We know it's no physical pain but it is a change in the way we think.

I don't know whether the thing that cannot be taught is the light or the heavenly hurt, but how does one go about teaching an inanimate object? I never can understand Emily Dickinson. I can only presume the it meant is the human mind that doubts and realises. The words imperial and seal go together here, and the affliction whatever it is is major and cannot be changed. This sounds suspiciously like someone who has lost his faith but I have never heard of Emily Dickinson being an agnostic so I can't say. 

And when this enlightenment comes a great change is wrought, employing strange hyperboles. Nature seems to be swayed. The landscape could be the surroundings - people, or the audience who have been told a new truth. The shadows of things past and obsolete are in threat of being obviated, which is why they seem to hold their breath in suspense. The final 2 lines are completely incomprehensible, as is typical for a Dickinson poem.  

Let's assume this enlightenment, when it goes, either because it's disproved, or (this sounds more poetic) the moment of truth is no longer wonderful, that feeling of wonder seems so distant, that it seems to die away. The word "death" is a bit strange here, it is morose and melancholic, and you wonder why Dickinson would use such a great word. If we say it's the moment of realisation that disappears the word death is extreme. But if we say it is a belief that's being challenged, the word death signifies a revolution in thinking.  Emily Dickinson seems more personal than a prophet of social issues so I doubt my own analysis. 

But what if we're talking about a temporary crisis of faith? Would not then the word "death" be appropriate? Yes, the scene of a gloomy cathedral (not church, it is something more imposing) makes you think of life and death. And if the narrator has a crisis of faith in the midst of religion, it is fitting that extreme words are used. Also, let's consider the "cathedral" tunes which are like the slant of light and fit it into the picture. The weight of tunes could be the bells or the organ which play hymns. Music can be heavenly, it fills us with the sense of the sublime (as very clever churchpeople have exploited) but it hurts because you know that amidst the glory is the sense of punishment for sins, and the presence of death (if we mean the Westminster Abbey). I don't know if America has famous cathedrals to bury the dead but anyway this is a guess. Perhaps Emily is trying to tell us, all the mercy churches are supposed to represent come with a darker meaning? That we are doomed sinners? The internal difference sounds redundant, as if from  a silly schoolgirl's pen. Bearing in mind Emily was a grown woman it must carry a deeper meaning. There is no trace (or scar) of how cruel religion can be in daily life, perhaps, but the internal difference is what is felt within, and that is what is important. The church does not simply whip people for being sinners, but then the threat of retribution is painful and leaves a scar, which is the internal difference where the meaning are.

Winter in Vetheuil by Monet
Feel free to contradict my suppositions. I hang on a thin thread, because I know nothing of Emily Dickinson, because she was a recluse, and what she may have thought of we may never know.

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