Saturday, January 17, 2009

"There’s a Certain Slant of Light"

Most readers will recognize the name of Emily Dickinson at least from a survey class taken some time in high school or college. Her poems can vary widely in terms of their “surface”—some seem quite transparent or “simple,” while others seem gnomic & impenetrable. Her collected poetry consists of 1,775 poems, tho only a handful were published in her lifetime; & although she was almost entirely ignored in her lifetime, she now draws considerable critical & biographical attention: she has earned the justified admiration of the poetic community; her isolated existence is examined & fictionalized; the possibilities of suppressed passions are explored; attempts are made to understand the personal background of the poems; lit crit types examine questions such as her stance regarding abolition & the Civil War (which was raging while she wrote many poems, including today’s offering); her use of the hymn stanza is analyzed, as is the quirky system of punctuation used in her handwritten poems.

What we have finally are the poems (along with some non-poetic personal writing, such as letters); & however “autobiographical” or fictive the poems may be, they are are also personal in all the best senses: poems that are completely true to the perspective from which they sprang, & yet also "personal" to anyone able to engage their language & emotion. Dickinson is generally acknowledged as a “great poet;” if she weren't, the concept of "great poet" would be meaningless.

The Dickinson poem I chose for today is seasonal. It seems to describe a moment when a quality of light appears in winter’s starkness & gloom. There’s a pain in the appearance of the light—the pain of hopeful expectation, sure to be disappointed? This is poem embued with a profound emotion conveyed in arresting language: “An imperial afflication/Sent us of the air”; the image of “Shadows hold their breath”; the “Heft/of Cathedral Tunes”—sound & light, a moment of waiting & illumination—& then something more devastating than mere disappointment falling as the light vanishes.

Eberle set this poem to music—a gorgeous setting we used to perform with the Alice in Wonder Band. I’ve included a recording below, along with a slideshow. This particular recording was made in June 2004, with our good pal Joshua Housh doing the sound. Deadre Chase is the singer; Lois Fry, violin; Art Troutner, oboe; Eberle Umbach, piano; yours truly, electric bass. The recording was made in the chapel at Marymount Hermitage, a building with incredible acoustics—thanks again to the sisters of Marymount for making this available to us.

Hope you enjoy the recording & the poem; & don’t be afraid to re-read & contemplate this masterful & compelling Dickinson lyric….

There’s a Certain Slant of Light

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—

Emily Dickinson
c. 1861, 1890


  1. Wow! Great analysis and a lovely arrangement.

    I always liked the opening lines of the Bee Gee's "To Love Somebody" ("There's a light/a certain kind of light) if for no other reason than they exceeded the Gibb brothers typical facility with lyrics. It wasn't until much later that I figured out that they had swiped the image from Emily Dickinson.

    For the record, Janis Joplin and not the Bee Gee's tyrned me on to the song.

  2. I've got paul (citzen k) to thank for giving me the heads up on the banjo.... one of my favorite poems by emily....I recently used it to celebrate the solstice on my blog.

    I enjoyed your the slide show and musical arrangement very much. thanks. I look forward to coming back for more delights!


  3. K: Thanks for the info on the Dickinson-Joplin-Bee Gees connection-- who'd a thunk it-- & thanks for your usual gracious comment.

    mouse: glad you stopped by-- I've just been looking over your blogs as well-- they look great; I'll be checking back on those as well. Thanks so much-- glad you liked what you found.

  4. Like you say, who'd a thunk? It's all an educated guess on my part, but the song line is too good and too close to the Dickinson poem for me to think that the Brothers G came up with it on their own. Janis' cover -- from I Got Dem Old Kozmic Blues Again Mama -- is typically amazing, but that's hardly news to anyone.


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