I’m sitting here in our sunroom, looking out this afternoon on our backyard, smothered with frost. We had our first snow cover a week ago, which came early to Kentucky.
I’m a warm weather lover, and while those around me complain about heat, I say, more is better.
You’d think coming from New England, I’d be more tolerant of snow and ice and lashing wind, but I can tell you that over time I’m liking old man winter much less.
But neither am I some isolated crank in finding winter oppressive.
Take fellow New Englander, Emily Dickinson, for example, that fervent champion of spring and summer, and with them, birds, flowers and even snakes populating her many poems, emissaries of nature’s cornucopia and the inherent goodness of its plentitude.
Understandably, she didn’t soften her distain toward winter in a poem I’ve memorized, “There’s a certain Slant of light.”
I’ve always admired this poem, like so many others she wrote, cerebral, observant, brief, but dependably engaging, centered in detail, redolent in ambience.
Here’s the poem, followed with my commentary:
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.
Like so many of Dickinson’s poems, this one deals with death, as ultimately revealed in its closing line. Keenly aware of the temporal, she always dreaded saying good bye to not only visiting friends, but the passage of the temperate seasons.
Appropriately, the poem’s ambience is foregrounded in emerging darkness on a winter afternoon, signified in the angular, or slanted, solstice light. While “Slant” suggests not only a way of seeing things, it more likely connotes a cosmic knife that wounds, amplified in the second stanza’s “hurt” and “scar” allusions.
In the first, stanza, however, this visual image of a slanting light evolves into one of sound, the light being like the “Heft” of Cathedral Tunes, heft denoting heaviness, or the solemnity of perhaps tolling bells or funeral music.
The speaker’s reference here to cathedrals plainly suggests the poem exceeds depiction of a gloomy New England winter’s day, entering into metaphysical concerns embracing religion, God, and mortality.
Dickinson, after all, was not only a rebel in writing non-traditional verse, both formally and thematically, but in her strident skepticism when it came to the assurances of Christianity.
In stanzas two and three, the persona traces the cosmic sources of the day’s oppressive gloom to Deity (1.e., “heavenly hurt,” “an imperial affliction /Sent us of the air”).
As to the specific nature of the transient day’s mood, it is rightfully left ambiguous (“None may teach it–Any–“), underscoring the persona’s angst in a cosmos ruled at best by a silent deity, who allows death’s intrusion into every aspect of nature.
The speaker can only offer analogies in attempting to articulate her resulting emotional dissonance in response to the waning light, since words often prove ineffectual in rendering matters of our psyche: “We can find no scar,/But internal difference/Where the Meanings are.”
The persona’s allusion to the Book of Revelation with its apocryphal judgments, “T’is the Seal Despair,” underscores the angst of this “imperial affliction” in its psychological reign.
In the concluding stanza, two additional analogies appear, the first employing personification: “When it comes’ the Landscape listens–/Shadows hold their breath–”
The pronoun “it” brings us back to the slanted light of the initial stanza, reminding us again that we are at the moment when the winter sun is about to slip below the horizon. With anxious anticipation, afternoon shadows stand at attention like sentries.
In the final analogy, the speaker breaks through with simile to the source of her angst in the sun’s passage: “When it goes, ’tis like the Distance/On the look of Death–”
Or like viewing a corpse, distanced from every human concern.
In the poem’s absence of any proffered reunion or resurrection, Dickinson’s deep vein of skepticism is readily apparent, despite her Puritan forbears and living in a culture still permeated with conservative Christian belief.
But it didn’t come easily to Dickinson, earning my admiration for her candid questioning of cherished communal beliefs. In an early letter, she would confess to “an aching void in my heart which I am convinced the world cannot fill.”
Though often thought of as eccentric, preferring solitude to company, the truth is Dickinson relished her family, had close friends as her extensive correspondence confirms, and received occasional visitors.
Separation from those she loved was always acutely stressful.
And death, of course, which came early and often in her time, was the ultimate ransacker of human bonds. In a three year period she would lose some forty-six friends and relatives.
I share her sensibility when it comes to winter. I miss Nature’s teeming sights, sounds, and smells: my flowers in variegated hues blooming proudly, attended to by murmuring bees; the smell of Spring lilacs; the taste of fresh berries; chickadees in their yellow jackets at the bird feeder, impervious to the wind.
Looking out my window at a checkered landscape of grays and whites on yet another eclipsed day of light on a winter afternoon, I grieve their absence and share the sense of pervasive temporality that so haunted Dickinson.
And thus, like her, I relish the return of every spring, enjoying what I can, while I’m able, and with what light remains.