There’s a certain Slant of light,


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.


9 Comments, Comment or Ping

  1. A pretty thought-provoking post, Everett. A couple responses:

    1. I read “a certain Slant of light” a little differently, as a reference to the kind of long shadows the sun casts later in the afternoon, the kind that have a melancholy about them in the way they seem to indicate, at least for me, how the day–or time–has passed. In this sense, the slant of light (or the shadow) functions as a marker of time and thus, a marker of the speaker’s own sense of mortality that returns in the last stanza. Either way though, I think Everett’s idea to link that slant of light to the oppressiveness of the “Cathedral Tunes” and the power that the external world (music, light) exerts over the speaker’s internal agency is really compelling, especially in considering how many of the poems we’ve read (particularly the nature ones) have demonstrated how Dickinson’s appropriates the external world to her own artistic ends.

    2. “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.”

    I really liked this part of Everett’s post. It made me think of a couple of different painfully-fractured-notions-of-the-self poems we’ve been reading in class, but I think the second stanza of poem 709 that Gracie just blogged about is particularly in dialogue with what you’re talking about here:

    “But since Myself – assault Me –

    How have I peace

    Except by subjugating

    Consciousness?”

    If this stanza is suggesting that Dickinson might have the power to “subjugate consciousness” in order to maintain some kind of internal peace–“where the meanings, are”–then the poem you’re discussing seems to suggest its nihilistic opposite: that the various internal meanings have assaulted “Meaning” entirely, that Dickinson is entirely at the mercy of her fractured selves, which in turn, are entirely at the mercy of external forces like a shadow on the floor or music in a cathedral. That Dickinson uses plural pronouns like “we” and “us” here only seems to underscore the idea that this externally-induced self-examination is working against Dickinson’s attempt in 709 to internalize a singular identity.

    3. To continue the depressingly bleak reading I’m doing, I read the “the Seal Despair” as nihilism and the “Air” that brings it as the same external world responsible for oppressing the speaker with slants of light and cathedral tunes earlier in the poem. Also, I really like Everett’s impulse to discuss the “Air” as Dickinson’s reflection of the transcendental ideas of Emerson/Thoreau, in which man’s communion with nature is essential for self-discovery. I would take that even further to suggest Dickinson’s personification of the external–“the Landscape” and “Shadows” in the last stanza–also reflects her familiarity with that philosophy. Ultimately though, rather than read Dickinson as supporting or endorsing transcendental ideology, I tend to read her as subverting it, suggesting instead that, through communion with the external world, her internal identity has fractured into nihilistic despair. To me, the “it” in the last stanza is the actual communion of the internal and the external, and when it departs, “The Distance on the look of Death” refers to the cruel, nihilistic distance that the external world keeps from humankind and our attempts to commune and make meaning from it.

    4. I guess what I’m trying to say in a nutshell is if Thoreau/Emerson think that communing with the external world is the path to self-discovery, than Dickinson reminds us that it can just as easily be the path to self-annihilation, depending on who’s doing the communing.

    5. I just read over my whole comment, and I kind of take back some of what I said in points 2, 3 and 4. Actually, the more I think about it, the more I’m starting to see Dickinson’s writing of this poem as a performance of what she’s struggling with in 709, in that she IS imposing order over the external world just by writing the poem. So maybe it’s not that nihilistic after all? I dunno. Any ideas?

    6. Sorry if I killed anyone’s eyeballs with this comment. I didn’t know I was going to spend this many hours of my Saturday on it when I started. On that note though, Scanlon: can this count as my critical CC post? Please? I’ll even show up to the end-of-year faulkner soiree dressed as emily dickinson, if you want.

    February 12th, 2011

  2. 1. I can definitely see that approach, and that’s sort of what I meant when I said that my reading of it isn’t really a “common sense” approach to it and that one like yours is in a lot of ways more valid.

    2, 3, 4. I’m not sure I see this as incompatible. One of the things I was getting at by invoking people like Plato, Thoreau, Emerson etc. is their attempts at self-examination. I tend to shy away from saying that Emerson or Thoreau would say that one must look in nature for self-discovery, as if nature were apart from one’s self–I think neither of them would buy into that and are at times arguing directly against the notion that nature is something other than ourselves (Cf. Thoreau’s “Walking” http://thoreau.eserver.org/walking.html for instance). But, one of the things I tried to get at is the riskiness of self-examination and that one in many ways (to use Thoreau’s terminology here) has to tear down one’s old “house” before building up a new one. I don’t think anyone who knows what he means by that would deny the terror or tearing down the old house, complete with copious furniture. It’s what propelled a lot of people (I hesitate to say existentialists, because I wouldn’t call Nietzsche, Kierkegaard or even Heidegger an existentialist really, though I might apply it to Sartre, Camus and even de Beauvoir) into a kind of pessimism and anxiety (the kind of anxiety Thoreau is talking about here: http://thoreau.eserver.org/walden1b.html) about the world and themselves. I sort of lost the direction of this comment. I guess I wanted to clarify some things that I thought you may have taken the wrong way from my initial post.

    5. I think you’re right that there is that kind of order being put onto the external, but what aspects of this poem in particular do you see that are speaking to 709? Is it just the first person plural? I read that more as a kind of “speaker for mankind” thing, since the intense confusion and anxiety of poems like 709 is much more explicit, you know?

    Also, I’m not sure where you’re getting nihilism out of this. I haven’t ever seen Dickinson talking about life as though it were meaningless or that nothing in the world really exists. For the latter I often find evidence to the contrary in a kind of rejection of traditional metaphysics and for the former it seems that, by virtue of writing the poem, Dickinson is instilling meaning, even if she doesn’t think it’s in the things themselves, which would involve humans being the kind of beings that create meaning, but I’m not sure that’s nihilistic. Maybe I’m getting you wrong though; which passages were you looking at?

    February 13th, 2011

  3. Gracie

    whoa ryan longest comment ever.

    February 13th, 2011

  4. mscanlon

    1) Excellent conversation, needless to say.
    2) Ryan, you don’t want to get in a philosophy war with Everett.
    3) Of course I want you to wear a Dickinson dress to your Faulkner banquet!! And I want photos of it. But sadly the CC assignment has to draw on someone else’s critical article, and though Everett’s post is great, it doesn’t count. Sorry, Severus.

    February 15th, 2011

  5. Sorry it took so long to get back to you on this Everett– got kinda bogged down the last couple weeks, one of those reasons being I was actually busy writing my ED paper on this poem. Whenever Scanlon posts those on the blog, you should check it out– I think it does a better job of getting at what I was trying to say in my previous comment. Anyways, to address a couple of your questions:

    As far as what I thought this poem has to say to 709, I was mostly thinking of how they both dwell on the notion of the self as something fractured or divided. In 709, it’s Dickinson’s frequent division of the words “Me” and “Myself.” In the passage of 709 that I quoted above, Dickinson seems to suggest that a self divided, a self where “Myself” assaults “me,” can be subjugated by the poet. Further, in the last stanza of that poem, she also writes: “And since We’re Mutual Monarch / How this be / Except by Abdication – / Me – of Me – ?” Here, the self might be divided, but, as a monarch, it seems to still hold a sense of agency in revoking this duality.

    In poem 320 though, I think you can read the self as irreparably fractured, particularly in stanza two, where, besides the use of the first person plural, Dickinson also writes: “We can find no scar/ But internal difference/ Where the Meanings, are.” You could argue that the poem’s bleak turn after this stanza– to “the Seal despair” and “the distance on the look of death”– reflects Dickinson’s inability to subjugate her internal “Meanings” to any kind of unified poetic identity and indicates a certain kind of nihilism, where differing meanings render the notion of a singular meaning passive and fragmented. Does that make any more sense?

    Also, in writing my paper and looking into the Emerson stuff you pointed me towards, I pretty much abandoned the fourth point from my comment. The more I thought about the poem, the less I think there was to fully support wherever I was going with that.

    In any case, in doing some research for this paper I discovered something that you’d probably find interesting and adds yet another interpretation to a line you already offered a couple readings for in your post: one of Dickinson’s early variants replaces “Any” in the first line of stanza three with “anything.” So the line actually reads: “None may teach it– anything.” Kinda changes things up a bit doesn’t it?

    March 5th, 2011

  6. Sorry it took me so long to get back to you Ryan. I got bogged down too.

    I haven’t gotten a chance to look at your paper just yet, but I will over summer when I have more time. But let me address your addresses.

    I think that’s a fair observation about the divided self. Thanks for making it more clear to me. 🙂

    However, I’m going to have to maintain my disagreement with your reading of 320. I think mainly because I’m not reading “difference” as irreparable fracture, but more as conflicting feelings, which it seems like there are some in this poem. It makes sense what you’re saying, but I think I still disagree, especially since the self divided which you’re noticing in this poem is much more subtle or covert than it is in 709 where it’s much more explicit and overt.

    That does change things. Interesting variant. Hm. Need to think a lot more about that haha.

    Also, two things:
    1) There are no wars here Scanlon, only good, clean conversation and argumentation.
    2) Ryan, do you like how I’m actually continuing this conversation like we said we would?

    April 27th, 2011

  7. Yeah, Scanlon, what a phallic thing to suggest. Darrington would be proud.

    Also, Everett: I appreciate the response, however belated. Remember though: just because the blog closes tomorrow, doesn’t mean this you’ve got the last word. Just wait until i move back home with my mom in a month.

    April 28th, 2011

  8. I anxiously awake.

    Also, I like how many slams against feminism have been had collectively, mainly by the male members of this class. Irony or not? Let’s have Scanlon be the judge…hopefully after she turns in grades.

    April 28th, 2011

  9. Wow I’m tired. When I said “awake” I definitely meant “await”….

    April 28th, 2011