February 11th, 2011
I know this is kind of going way back into the past, so I’m going to do a kind of quick and dirty interpretation of one way in which I read this poem, completely and unabashedly formed by my other readings going on at the time (Plato and Thoreau).
So one of the things that I thought of when reading this poem was how, sometimes, when I’m alone and just sort of spacing out (perhaps on “Winter Afternoons”) I can become prone to self-reflection. Metaphorically that’s what I saw the “Slant of light” as, something that is visible when this is prone to occur.
It may be “like the Heft / Of Cathedral Tunes” in that it “oppresses” us by arresting our attention. I see the “Cathedral Tunes” as oppressive not only by virtue of being music, which seems to me to be one of those things that you cannot stop from entering into you (and for someone like Plato, Thoreau and perhaps Dickinson, entering directly into your soul), but through the content of the music, which is the divine. I recognize fully the urge to read this sarcastically in that cathedral tunes oppress one just as religion does, but I’m not sure that’s what’s going on because of the start of the next stanza.
I felt, when reading this, that Dickinson was very serious when she describes what “it gives us”–“Heavenly Hurt.” The capitalization of both words (as well as “Cathedral Tunes” and others throughout the poem) indicate to me the seriousness of the sentiment. One of the ideas that Plato bats around is that it can be painful, or that it might “Hurt” one to examine oneself (as you can see in Meno). One of the consequences of this is that there, of course, would be “no scar” visible, but rather some kind of “internal difference / Where the Meanings, are.” Of course, the comma in that line might seem to foul things up because, although the sentence would still be about internal meanings, one might suspect what follows (an explanation of what those meanings “are”) to be inconsistent. But, really, it just gets even better.
“None may teach it,” as Plato’s Socrates will tell you. He doesn’t claim to teach anything (which he starts to talk about in Apology around 19e and states explicitly at 33a). The ambiguous “Any” separated by two dashes syntactically seems to me to mean one of two things in the context of this interpretation: 1) an emphasis on the “None,” as in “not anyone” 2) simply anyone as in “None may teach it to anyone else.” Either would fit nicely, so, why not both? Again, the “Despair” would be the kinds of losses one must make if one is to take part in the kind of self-examining life one makes (although that gets more into Aristotle–thinking of his discussion on friendship in the Nicomachean Ethics), again an “imperial affliction” could be one worthy of royalty, or perhaps one that conquers to expand its empire, etc. which would not be incompatible with either Plato or Aristotle here, while “Sent us of the Air” could mean that it was literally seen in the air, or perhaps, since the line gives agency of the air, it could relate to a Thoreauvian or Emersonian idea that Nature itself is something we’re a part of and that it is, in that way, part of ourselves, thus making the air our own reminder of the true nature of our being insofar as we are humans.
The last stanza definitely seems to be departing from the kinds of thoughts that Plato and Aristotle are having and delving deeper into the Thoreauvian-Emersonian territory of things. Of course “the Landscape listens,” as it is not only you, but something that would resonate and hear this “Slant of light,” which by now has now taken on a multi-sensational quality (sight and sound) and so too would “Shadows – hold their breath,” with that little dash included to even given the reader the effect of holding one’s breath as one reads over (or out loud) the words on the page. And lastly, “the Distance / On the look of Death” that comes “When it goes.” Well here we’re back to Plato, but really I think we haven’t left Thoreau or Emerson, but whatever. Something that philosophy forces one to do is to try and figure out who one really is and what one really thinks. One of the ways that one is suggested to do this, primarily in Plato, is to act and think your thoughts as though you were facing your own death at every moment (mainly because we all actually are. None of us can be certain when we shall die or in what manner, so, for Plato, to act as though we know it won’t be within the next minute is a mistake and, for someone like Thoreau it might constitute not living deliberately). So to put this all together, when this feeling leaves, the self-reflection that is ceases, it would putting a kind of “Distance” between oneself and “the look of Death,” which would not only be one’s looking at death, but it’s look at you, for if you are truly connected to eternity (to bring back Thoreau/Emerson) by virtue of being connected to who you really are, then you’re also connected to your own death and are, in a sense, facing it, and it gazes long into you (just to throw a little Nietzsche in here, since his ideas might help to clear up certain parts Emerson, especially since Emerson influenced Nietzsche’s thought immensely).
So, quick and dirty summary of one of my readings of this poem. What do you all think? I don’t really like it ultimately and I think it kind of misses the point in a sense. Really I think any kind of strict interpretive move when dealing with Dickinson tends to confine her poetry, her thoughts and thus herself in more ways than I’m comfortable with.