There’s a certain slant of light

Once again I haven’t had time to put together anything of much significance for the old blog today so, as usual when this happens, I’ll cheat by posting a poem. I picked this one for its wintry and appropriately melancholic theme; it is by the great American poet Emily Dickinson. I bought a collection of her poems in a very cheap edition in a bookshop in the States many years ago, but have never really managed to figure many of them out. I gather she features much more regularly in Eng. Lit. classes on the other side of the Atlantic than over here in Britain, and its probably my foreigner status that makes me find her poems so difficult.

This a very famous example of her work. At one level it expresses the unsettling effect that changes in light can have on the human psyche, but that’s just the start. The deeper meanings elude me, except that it is probably to do with the poet’s uncomfortable relationship with organized religion.  At least when she was young,  Emily Dickinson was a devotee of the Transcendentalist movement, which saw human experience, Nature and God as aspects of a transcendent unity. The  view expressed in this poem is certainly nothing like that. This is a fractured, lonely world where Nature and God are both alien and oppressive influences.

The strange use of punctuation and capitalization is also very typical.

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 —

30 Responses to “There’s a certain slant of light”

  1. Garret Cotter Says:

    Lovely. I think of this as a bit like the “penetrating gaze” of the lighthouse (which Woolf herself always claimed had no meaning:) – the low sun in winter definitely has rays, just like evening summer sun through a casement window…

    You feel that they do penetrate you and illuminated you inside; but if you look too hard, in a certain mood, you find nothing concrete; and then the rays are gone; and in winter all is left cold, and dead, and you wonder if all they showed you is your own mortality. Which, again by mood, can be either a depressing or vital feeling.

    (Hmmm. Maybe time to get back to marking my Thermodynamics questions!)

  2. German capitalises all nouns, not just proper nouns, and Danish did as well, up until about 60 years ago. A few hundred years ago, one could find samples of English literature with nouns capitalised, but also other, almost random, schemes (though my impression is that even here it is mostly nouns which are capitalised—but not all nouns, and some non-nouns, like in the poem above). Could the strange capitalisation be an attempt to introduce a “retro” feel, channeling the ghost of John Donne, say?

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    The view that all is One is called monism, and is at the core of Eastern belief systems. These include Buddhism and Hinduism; the latter acknowledges many gods, meaning powerful spiritual beings. Judaism, Christianity and Islam believe in contrast that there is one God who created the universe (and, consequently, us) and is therefore sovereign over it. This distinction between creator and created is incompatible with monism. So please would you explain what (or who) you mean by ‘God’ in the phrase “the Transcendentalist movement… saw human experience, Nature and God as aspects of a transcendent unity”? I am confused. This is a request for a definition of terms, just as in a scientific paper.
    Anton

    • telescoper Says:

      I’m not an expert on such things at all but my limited understanding is that transcendentalist believe that the great spiritual unity transcends physical existence and is therefore not amenable to empirical or logical thought. I think it’s possible to be a monist but not believe in transcendence, but hold to the idea of an immanent deity that exists within the physical world. American transcendentalism was amongst other things, a reaction against the teachings of the Unitarian church.

      But if you ask me to define what “God” is more precisely, I’ll have to pass…

  4. God is a Concept by which
    we measure our pain

  5. Anton Garrett Says:

    Phillip,

    Every civilisation has acknowledged some kind of god except Western Civilisation of the post-Enlightenment era. To write off the views of every culture except your own might be a bit blinkered?

    Same question to you as to Peter – What do you mean by ‘God’ in that assertion of your dogma? Further comment is futile without a common language.

    Anton

  6. telescoper Says:

    Anton,

    I suppose you could replace “God” by “The Creator” in my statement, so that it means that the Creator and the Created (whether human or not) are all aspects of a transcendent unity and therefore indeed have no real distinction. Will that do? It seems consistent with how you defined monism. But how does this relate to pantheism? Didn’t Spinoza equate God and the material universe?

    All these -isms confuse me even more than the poem does.

    Peter

  7. It’s just a quote—it’s not from me.

    Surely, some better criterion is needed, even by your own standards. Practically every civilisation except post-Enlightenment Western ones have burned witches, discriminated against non-conformists, thought war was justified, discriminated against women etc. Surely you don’t think these are all OK just because they have often been the norm?

    Arguing about religion is pointless between believers and non-believers. Only with those who aren’t sure is there any point in it. So, I will just make a couple of remarks and leave it at that: Most atheists don’t believe in your God for the same reasons that you don’t believe in Zeus and that almost all people everywhere at all times are convinced atheists with respect to all gods except perhaps their own. So atheism isn’t qualitatively different than belief, only slightly different quantitatively.

  8. Anton Garrett Says:

    Peter,

    That creator and created are part of a greater Whole, so the distinction is not fundamental, is indeed monism. Pantheism is monistic monotheism: all is one and is divine, so that god is everything.

    I don’t regard myself as competent to comment on Spinoza’s views, sorry.

    Anton

  9. Anton Garrett Says:

    Phillip,

    You posted that quote, so you presumably have some commitment to it; but without a definition of the G-word I don’t know what you mean.

    “Practically every civilisation except post-Enlightenment Western ones have burned witches, discriminated against non-conformists…” Modern Western Civ started the two most dreadful wars in history and bequeathed totalitarian communism to the world. Those were nothing to do with ‘religion’ either (the usual whipping boy).

    I am not an atheist with regard to Zeus, actually. I believe Zeus exists, although he might have undergone some changes of name. But I do not put my faith in him, and he is not the creator God in whom I do.

    I do agree with you that atheism is a faith.

    Anton

  10. The quote was the first one which popped to mind when Peter said that he couldn’t define God. Not everything posted to the blogosphere is the result of hours or years of meditation. 🙂

    “Modern Western Civ started the two most dreadful wars in history”. Perhaps in the sense of total dead, but that is a consequence of there being more people now. Actually, “primitive” societies are much more violent, and violence has decreased in the last few hundred years:

    “If the wars of the twentieth century had killed the same proportion of the population that die in the wars of a typical tribal society, there would have been two billion deaths, not 100 million.”

    Read the whole essay here:

    http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/pinker07/pinker07_index.html

  11. Personally, I don’t find any isolated, fractured world in this poem from Emily. I see it as a brave statement, proudly offered, that affirms her unique State of Self.

    And those capitalizations are hers, where capitalized Things are something broader and more encompassing than they otherwise might be. A certain Slant of light, which is, that which illuminates things in that particularly unique way, that she describes in the poem. A word, as an object, that attempts to place it in the sphere of the Absolute, a definitive thing – to lock it in place, and perhaps, I suspect, to poke a little fun at it, being so.

    To me, this poem talks about the knowledge of The Way Things Are, as given, and even forced, if by nothing else than the sheer weight of numbers of people who adhere – that Slant, which claims to be the sole access to Meaning, yet is always separate from the Self – that Slant of light, being pushed down upon the Self, that claims all meaning.

    But she suggests none may truly teach it, yet anyone may access it – and the fact that it insists that it is the true access to Meaning, and is believed predominantly, that it is an affliction – imperial in nature, yet founded upon amorphous air.

    The last stanza I can’t really talk about because it’s the transcendent bit. Experientially “known”, perhaps. When the Slant pushes down upon her understanding, it touches upon everything, in a way that perhaps makes her doubt herself. It may promise something better, or more, or brighter, yet it always is complete, fading away, and going. It is not enough to banish the shadows. It comes and it goes. And when it goes, she is left with the distance from Meaning it offers, with only her own meaning (lower case), and she is as far away from knowing with certainty, as she is from her own death.

    That’s my take, at least. I like it when you don’t have time, Peter.

    Oh, and in this sense, God is not mentioned, and I think quite purposefully so. Cathedrals are, though, representing humankind’s organized, hierarchical and centralized access to Truth and Meaning. That is not God. However, death is a certainty. As is, some innate sense we have of meaning, and a desire to find it.

  12. Anton Garrett Says:

    Phillip,

    And if we wipe out the entire human race as a result of nuclear or biological weapons then that is just an accident of better technology even though violence is, er, decreasing? Pangloss to you!

    No physicist has ever given me a coherent answer to why the laws of physics should be beautiful. What else could it mean than an intelligent designer who is into beauty? This does not ‘prove’ any of the three Creator faiths (Judaism, Christianity, Islam), but if an intelligent designer exists then the most important question that any human can ask is, “What is my relation to the one who designed me?” So it is entirely rational for a physicist to read the Old and New Testaments and the Qur’an and to enquire of Jews, Christians and Muslims about their faith.

    Moreover the endless wars and violence of which you rightly complain, including two world wars having nothing to do with religion, and in modern secular society the appalling rate of marital breakdown in which each side blames the other, clearly show that there is some deep flaw in the human heart. Universal education systems have failed to eradicate war, so the problem is not in the head. Which of the creator faiths say that there is a flaw in the human heart? Judaism and Christianity. (They also explain that the problem is not due to a mess-up by the creator.) Judaism is restricted by ethnicity. That leaves Christianity, which is my faith.

    I am often told it is arrogant to believe I am right and people of all other faiths are wrong. In that case everybody in the world is arrogant (including atheists, who have a belief system that they hold by faith albeit nontheistic). What actually matters is what your faith system says about how to treat people of different beliefs. New Testament Christianity involves giving people informed free choice. (Plenty of people who *claimed* to be Christian have violated this command of Christ’s, and I am sure they will have to answer to him for giving him a bad name.)

    PS Re my comments about Zeus above – if you dismiss me as holding strange views, you will be dismissing Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Pericles too…

    Anton

  13. “And if we wipe out the entire human race as a result of nuclear or biological weapons then that is just an accident of better technology even though violence is, er, decreasing? Pangloss to you!”

    The point is that the effect of bad morality is equal to M*N*F, where M is the badness of the morality, N is the number of people involved (with an obvious upper limit in the caveman days) and F is a technological factor. All three are obviously important, and M and F are obviously needed to evaluate the effect for a given population. Pinker’s point is that M has been decreasing, whereas many people would probably claim the opposite (especially the “noble savage” types; see his book THE BLANK SLATE for much more detailed discussion, including many references, on this (and other) topic(s)). Of course, F can still allow even a single individual to have a huge effect, but the point is that even in such a case the result is not due to a lack of morality in general, but rather in a particular person.

    From an evolutionary point of view, there is obvious survival value in understanding the world. Good things, from an evolutionary point of view, are beautiful. Thus, I don’t see a puzzle regarding why the laws of nature should be beautiful.

    “modern secular society the appalling rate of marital breakdown in which each side blames the other” In the “good old days”, most people died long before the age at which modern people get divorced, and in many case before the age at which modern people get married. There was a time when people didn’t get divorced not because the marriage was good, but because it was frowned upon by society. I don’t see a correlation between secularism and marital happiness.

  14. Anton Garrett Says:

    Phillip,

    This aptly illustrates the limitations of quantification where human matters are concerned. How do you measure M? Are you talking about an individual or a culture? Should not the effect be proportional to N^2 because people treat each other well or badly in interactions betwen them? What good is the whole thing if a laboratory in a terrorist state develops a universally fatal bug and it gets out?

    We didn’t have a clue what they laws of physics were until about 400 years ago. Where is the evolutionary selection pressure to see them as beautiful?

    Anton

  15. Anton Garrett Says:

    Phillip,

    Let me put that last point a bit more clearly. I do not question whether intelligence has evolved as a survival strategy. I doubt that aesthetics has. Especially in mathematics.

    Anton

  16. Aesthetics may be a subconscious message – the larger portions of our brain suggesting to the little bit up front, that something may be just right. But it’s a tricky bitch, that.

    But if that’s true, the evolution of our consciousness may play a role.

    I don’t think we can say that good things are necessarily beautiful, though – or that beautiful things are necessarily good. Any more than we can say an aesthetically beautiful equation is correct because of it’s hot-ness. However, many a man falls prey to such trappings.

    I also don’t see any connection between a notion of beauty and the existence of God (or some variation thereof, involving whatever paranormal or metaphysical thingy or thingies you want to substitute). But that’s a very personal thing.

    To me, much stronger evidence exists for God when exploring exactly what consciousness is, and our shared, innate sense of ethics. Natural law, if you will, only highly abstracted. I think poetics may live there.

    But even that is very weak for claiming any evidence of God, in any certain terms. And it pales against the problem of evil.

    That being said, I don’t disbelieve in God. But I do recognize that any human-controlled notions of God can be very dangerous, in that it can easily pervert our ethics into doing what is spoken from some human authority, rather than what we innately know is ethically correct, or what might better reason is an ethically superior position.

    It’s funny how this all revolves around Emily’s poem.

  17. Anton Garrett Says:

    Mark,

    It’s great how this all revolves around Emily’s poem!

    Anton

  18. telescoper Says:

    Anton

    I’m interested to know whether you see this poem as having a religious theme or not.

    Peter

  19. Anton Garrett Says:

    Peter,

    Before I answer that, do you want me to do it “blind” (ie, look at the poem only) or am I free to investigate the author’s biography more?

    Anton

  20. Anton Garrett Says:

    The poem is based on the feelings elicited in her by a specific visual experience. She expresses those feelings very well indeed. She universalises her theme by using objective language and the “Royal We,” and a reader who believes that the divine is in all things (ie, a panentheist) might say that the poem is ‘religious’ – although that word has a dangerously wide spectrum of meaning.

    I see no allegory in the poem relating to any particular set of religious beliefs; in particular I think the mention of cathedrals is merely part of her attempt to convey a mood.

    Anton

  21. telescoper Says:

    I’ve read that some people consider this poem to be a direct allusion to the experiences of St. Theresa of Avila, but I’m not at all sure whether that’s the case.

    I agree that it captures the emotional and psychological effect of natural change, in this case a particular kind of light. I sense that it hints at more than that, but don’t know what.

  22. Anton Garrett Says:

    St Teresa of Avila’s experiences were very different in mood; her best known one (famously portrayed by Bernini) was far more intense and the general tone of them is not wistful, or despairing of anything other than her own sinfulness. (Christians *should* feel despair about that, but at the same time joy that they have been forgiven.)

  23. “I’ve read that some people consider this poem to be a direct allusion to the experiences of St. Theresa of Avila, but I’m not at all sure whether that’s the case.”

    It sometimes happen that critics interpret too much into a work. I think of such blunders as “literary illusions”.

  24. Anton Garrett Says:

    Phillip,

    Yes indeed. A long time ago I co-produced, anonymously, a spoof of something that had circulation to literary critics (among others), and it was great to hear them pointing out all sorts of clever allusions that we never had in mind. The mediaeval mania with allegory lives on!

    Anton

  25. Equus

    Wild Horses – Wild Horses!
    were I with thee
    Wild Horses should be
    Our luxury!

    Futile the Winds
    to Imagination in flight
    Done with the saddle –
    Done with the briddle!

    Riding in silence –
    Ah – so free
    Might I but ride – tonight
    with thee!

    variation on a theme by Emily

  26. God never needs any rules and norms practiced by human ,He just looks for the experiences of love

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