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 seal 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 –
I shared this photo on Facebook, loving the look of the late afternoon light shining on the trees across the street. My friend Todd said, “I believe that’s the slant Ms. Dickinson was talking about.”
It was like a stab in my heart. So beautiful it hurt. I had to re-read the poem immediately.
I think he’s right.
Another of those poems I’ve read before and didn’t really get. But sudden illumination, the way the light shines– sudden, surprising– as it sinks into the west after a day filled with snow and snow and snow. Dickinson is a Massachusetts poet after all. This is her landscape much more than it is mine.
My landscape of the mind is dry Texas crabgrass withering in the sun and fire ant mounds and the heavy light of August afternoons slowly sifting through the live oaks and pecan fans. I will always be enchanted by the snow falling. I can’t imagine getting tired of it.
“Oppresses”? Really, Emily? I want to protest. I found a blogger who is sure that this gloomy poem probably has to do with her discomfort with organized religion, that Nature and God are both alien and oppressive. Be that as it may, I took an opposite tack in my reading today. Reading against the grain, pushing back against taking Emily’s oppression at face value. I’d like to think it possible that she uses the word ironically. The beauty is oppressive because it hurts so much. Heavenly hurt it gives us.
Ah the wound of love, I want to say. That beauty that stabs at the heart, that breaks you open and leaves you completely vulnerable. The absent, or rather invisible, scar reminds me of Teresa of Avila’s wounded heart. Does she despair because God is alien or absent or perhaps because God seems out of reach? Or is she really despairing at all? Perhaps its more of a longing? Or something of a dark night of the soul? Or is it that beauty’s pain reminds you of a lack not in God or in the world but in the self?
Why do critics assume that the pain, hurt, heaviness, despair indicate a distance from religion or a loss of faith? Is that a reflection of Dickinson’s attitude toward faith or the reader’s? I was reminded by a friend that critics don’t get Eliot’s Ash Wednesday in part because critics who are attracted to Eliot seem to not get Christianity.
Now, reading this poem in Lent after days of writing out beautiful copies of Lenten antiphons, I bring to this poem a vision of the cross. These are the antiphons I’ve been writing:
“Come, let us adore Christ the Lord, who for our sake endured temptation and suffering.”
“Through your cross and passion deliver us, Lord.”
“See how the cross of the Lord stands revealed as the tree of life.”
The cry of Christ on the cross: “My God, My God, Why have you abandoned me?”
Now come back to “the look of Death.” Death in the cathedral. Death on a winter afternoon. Is this Despair about Dickinson’s lack of faith? Or is “the imperial affliction” the cross itself? Is the heaviness the heaviness of the cross? To me “the seal despair” echoes perhaps Revelation 5 and the despair of John who cries because there is no one in heaven or on earth or under earth who can open the seal. And yet he is mistaken. The angel tells him not to weep. There is one who has triumphed over death, who can indeed open the seal.
Then I saw a mighty angel who proclaimed in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?”
But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to examine it.
I shed many tears because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to examine it.
One of the elders said to me, “Do not weep. The lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David, has triumphed, enabling him to open the scroll with its seven seals.
“O death, where is thy victory? O death, where is thy sting?”
Now you tell me, is this a poem of despair? A poem about the poet’s loss of faith? Or could it be a poem of Lenten dryness? A poem about the cross?
When I read “the look of Death” I see Christ on the cross. The look of God, dead. The lamb, slain. To me it’s not Dickinson’s faith that is dead. No, her faith seems very much alive. Rather, this poem speaks to me of the mystic confronting the terrible beauty of the cross. Does the poem feel broken, disordered, jumbled? Well how can one paint Calvary except as broken shards?
It’s not faith that is broken, but the believing heart that must embrace brokenness. A living faith embraces the sadness of Good Friday, the terror of the cross. It’s the believing heart that broken by sin, heavy with its burden of sin, the oppression of the awareness of sin, that feels most painfully the presence of the light breaking through the clouds into the coldness of the fallen world.
For Eliot April is the cruelest month because it is the time of awakening, of the dull roots being stirred to life again. And I see the same movement in Dickinson, the ache of the dull soul awakening to light and music and an awareness of a meaning that can barely be spoken, barely be confronted, only at a slant, only jaggedly and in a roundabout way can we come at the broken heart of it. Does the light hurt? Light breaking into darkness does hurt because it brings life.
Other takes on the poem I found while googling around, something to push against as I read:
one from In the Dark
one from the prowling Bee