Donald E. Thackrey: On 258 ("There's a certain Slant of light")

One of the very best lyric poems which Emily Dickinson wrote, it seems to me, is ["There's a certain Slant of light"]. . . . /76/

This poem is frequently found in anthologies of American poetry but has seldom been discussed, as far as I know. Perhaps the explanation is to be found in the poem itself, which is unquestionably beautiful in its sound, and striking in its imagery, yet resists definition in terms of a logical, comprehensive statement. This poem, certainly, is one of those rare poems which are experienced, never completely understood. It seems to me impossible to read the lines without feeling a tragic, serene emotion which must be akin to the melancholy about which Keats writes. Emily Dickinson's poem is much less specific than the "Ode on Melancholy" in describing the nature of the emotion, but her poem captures and transmits the experience itself.

In regard to the poem's meaning, one finds himself perplexed at first. The poet experiences a profound affliction in the presence of something normally regarded as cheerful—a ray of light. If, however, one remembers the mystical approach which characterizes much of Emily Dickinson's writing, the poem assumes a new meaning. This is not a mystical poem, but it derives its ethereal quality from the influence of the mystical aspect of Emily, Dickinson's viewpoint. Light, itself a characteristic mystical symbol of the Divine, and perhaps also the natural splendor of the world which the light reveals and enhances in its afternoon, fading glow, strikes Emily Dickinson with the irresistible force of an Eternal Power. Not mere speculation is stimulated; an emotional ecstasy of such intensity that it is an affliction possesses her. Furthermore, it is an imperial affliction sent us of the air. It is again the mystical concept of the worthiness of painful ecstasy to promote the complete fulfillment of one's nature. No other education is comparable; only the experiencing of "despair" sets the enduring "seal" upon the soul. One recalls that beauty and truth, alike in their effect, are for her the agents of supreme human fulfillment and are accompanied by the complex sensations indescribable except in such paradoxical terms as rapturous pain. The slant of light, its illumination epitomizing the glorious sublimity of nature, would symbolize for Emily Dickinson the ultimate realization of truth and beauty. The immensity of light's compass, the intangibility of its substance, the mystery of its origin, the all-pervasive immediacy of its /77/ presence would create in her the sudden awareness of her own relationship to the natural world and yet of the inevitable change of this relationship at death. The awareness that she must cease to see the light gives her present vision its searing acuteness. . . .

An examination of the images in "There's a certain slant of light" reveals their extraordinary degree of consistency and appropriateness. The light is presented in its most effective form. The slant indicates that the light is refracted so that one may see the beam or ray itself and not just an illuminated surface. The slant is explained by afternoons. Sunset is near, for "winter afternoons" are short. The terms winter and afternoon both are suggestive of the end of life. The lustre and yellow warmth of the light stand out in striking relief in austere winter. Light compared with cathedral tunes demonstrates a consummate use of imagery in which the profoundest impressions of one sense are called forth to describe equally profound impressions of another sense. The senses of sight and hearing, as well as an emotional tone and a feeling of muscular tenseness in opposing weight, are all involved in the brief stanza. The nature of the paradoxical "Heavenly hurt" is made evident by the image of cathedral tunes. Most people are sensible of the sober disquietude that may be stimulated by great, solemn music, if not by the beauty of nature. The "internal difference" is, of course, the essential difference for Emily Dickinson rather than any outward change. . . . /78/

[The] significance of the slant of light is also within. The sudden, inward change is so thorough that the poet, holding her breath and listening, sees her own emotional state reflected in the very landscape and shadows. The emotion, too intense to last, subsides as the slant of light lengthens and lowers into the gray of twilight. Then "'tis like the distance / On the look of death." The feeling of softened, lengthened distances as seen at dusk, the poignancy in the departure of something precious, the resigned awareness of death—not felt with the acute sensations of before but contemplated dispassionately—all are included in this solemn final image.

The mechanical details of the poem are, to my mind, flawless. The second and fourth lines of each stanza end in perfect rhyme, and the first and third lines of each stanza exhibit the incomplete sound-rhymes for which Emily Dickinson has been alternatively praised and damned for something over fifty years. The recurrence of sounds in the complete and incomplete rhymes is not obvious and blatant; it has the effect of music lightly assuring the listener of its key by sometimes stating the tonic, but frequently only pausing on the dominant. The key or tone of the poem is maintained throughout by the preponderance of "s" sounds. The poem seems to demand to be read in a subdued tone ending with the whispered last two lines. There is not a jarring sound present; the liquid "I's" and the vowels add to the hushed, lyric quality.

The trochaic meter in this poem is much more skillfully handled than the majority of Emily Dickinson's meters. Even in the terse /79/ seven-syllable, five-syllable lines there is present much subtle metric variation, as reading the poem aloud will verify.

The simplicity of the organization of this poem is art which conceals art. The stanzas are self-contained, precise units, each one an extension of the basic meaning. The poem ends with the symmetrically balanced phrases "when it comes . . . when it goes . . . " and the final images of sound and sight complete in reverse the pattern created by the sight and sound imagery of the first stanza.

This poem exhibits none of the childishness, the self-conscious mannerisms, which mar some of her poetry. The characteristics which are present—the introspective analysis of the second stanza, the mystical implications of the third, and the supreme mastery of words and imagery throughout—contribute to make this poem one of the best products of Emily Dickinson's unique poetic genius. /80/

From Emily Dickinson's Approach to Poetry, New Series, No. 13 (University of Nebraska Studies, November 1954), pp. 76-80.

Jerald Ramsey: On "For A Coming Extinction"

"For a Coming Extinction," the latest in Merwin's pod of whale poems, all owing something to Jonah and job, and having to do with the terrible human implications of animal extinctions. But the tone of the poem is not so simple: as in other poems of its kind in the book, Merwin's spokesman employs a complex kind of sarcasm rather than the consistently self-incriminating irony of a conventional persona. The speaker's monumentally arrogant statement on behalf of the heedless despoilers of life shifts intermittently to direct evocation of the pity, outrage, and guilt that the prospect of the whale's extinction demands, and in this mood he defines the terrible burden under which the poetic imagination must labor in The Lice:

I write as though you could understand And I could say it One must always pretend something Among the dying

By Jerold Ramsey. From M.S. Merwin: Essay on the Poetry. Ed. Cary Nelson and Ed Folsome. Copyright © 1987 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

Pantheolla T. Williams: On Middle Passage

Pontheololla T. Williams In "Middle Passage" he treats the origin of the slave trade in Africa as it relates to the devlopment of the new ethnic group—the Afro-American. "Middle Passage" tries to achieve a two-fold purpose. Hayden says that he wanted to fulfill Benet's prophecy and to write a poem that would give the lie to bigots who had distorted the Afro-American's history. Though it was inspired by epic intentions and contains elements of the epic, it is not quite that. The traditional epic depicts the values and patterns of the life of an entire people or culture through the experience of a hero who represents in himself certain ideals of that culture. "Middle Passage" attempts through a hero to present the values, both positive and negative, of the slavery era and the Afro-American's historic condition, depicting his dislodgment and displacement from his mother country to an alien land. The hero of the poem is Cinquez, the captive prince who inspired and carried out the Amistad mutiny. This figure, however, blends with the poet-observer, who enunciates "the deep dark immortal human wish / the timeless will to be free" (lines 172-73). Another epic element in "Middle Passage" is the device of cataloging--the listing of the ships and the listing of the African tribes, all historically authenticated by Hayden's research. It begins in medias res with the depiction of ships under full sail carrying slaves in mid-Atlantic. Its tone is dignified. The ending is not without a note of triumph, though this term does not adequately describe the mystical exaltation of the concluding stanzas. Yet, the poem is not an epic. It is too short. Moreover, it is more lyrical than narrative; whenever a narrative section appears, it is telescoped or fragmented. The issue of religion is handled with great irony and for the purpose of condemnation. Intervention of the gods is lacking. The intervention of John Quincy Adams is the nearest approximation to this convention. And the hero does not engage in monologues; his words as well as his deeds are presented from the reportorial consciousness of the poet-observer. The poem is set in the classic framework of a journey--one that begins when the African principals leave their villages. The exodus is engineered as much by the African kings who sell their captives to satisfy their greed for "luxuries" as it is by the Spanish greed for gold. The first lap of the journey is to the "factories"--places where the captives are sorted out, processed, and subdued for their coming enslavement. The second lap, the horrific "Middle Passage," is the journey across the Atlantic Ocean to America and slavery. The third lap, only alluded to in the poem, is the journey from the barracoons in America to the plantations. Part 1 begins with a chilling description of the inhumane treatment slavers gave the Africans aboard various slave ships. Moving from the general to the particular, part 2 presents the reminiscences of a corrupt old slave-trader who is stopped from plying his trade only by the physical toll the tropics take on him--"fevers melting down [his] bones." Ironically his greed for gold is shown as being of a piece with that of the African kings' greed for luxuries. Part 3, the climactic section of the poem, is the poetic recreation of the Amistad mutiny, which occurred in 1839 and became a cause célèbre. The personae are the omniscient poet-observer, the African tribal chiefs and their subjects, the heroic Cinquez, the Spanish captain of the Amistad, common seamen, Celestino the mulatto, and the silent voice of John Quincy Adams, who argues the case for Cinquez and his people and who, in fact, argued the case for the Amistad rebels. It is a tribute to Hayden's poetic genius that in the poem, otherwise so brilliantly and uniquely his own, he stands in debt to two poets who demonstrated conflicting views of America. Evident in "Middle Passage" are the techniques T. S. Eliot used in "The Wasteland" and the influence of Hart Crane's vision of crucifixion and resurrection, horror and squalor out of which radiates hope and light. As Crane, in "The Bridge," attempted to forge the American identity, Hayden likewise forges in "Middle Passage" the American identity of the Afro-American. In part 1, Hayden introduces the technique of fragmentation which Eliot used with striking effect in "The Wasteland." It is a device that lends itself to a vivid portrayal of the disintegration of a society--in "Middle Passage," the historic disintegration of African society. Accordingly, the development of part 1 includes sequential presentation, without transition, of names of ships, a section of a ship's log, a sailor's prayer, a portion of a sailor's letter, and a legal deposition. The Eliot-like motifs that achieve unity are the refrain "Jesus Savior Pilot Me" (a hymn line which creates an ironic commentary), the biblically derived names of ships, and the poet-observer's chorus-like voice. From a vantage point that spans time and place, the poet condemns the horrors of the Middle Passage, describing it as a "voyage through death" (lines 3-7). He condemns American greed--that of the New England shipping interests as well as that of the southern plantation owners: Standing to America, bringing home black gold, black ivory, black seed. Deep in the festering hold thy father lies of his bones New England pews are made, those are altar lights that were his eyes. The "altar lights" motif establishes an ironic relationship with Shakespeare's theme of death and resurrection in The Tempest. The allusion is to Ariel's speech to Ferdinand that falsely reports the death of Ferdinand's father. Hayden explains that his intention was based on his feeling that there was some connection between the sea change Shakespeare describes and "the change from human beings into things--objects, suffered by the enslaved Africans--the idea that slavery was a kind of death." Hayden's immediate purpose in using the allusion, according to Charles Davis, is to mock "a less than spiritual transformational while reminding the reader of a supposed death by drowning, which in reality led to a regeneration through sea change, Ariel's song also portrays a metamorphosis from blindness to new vision. (The sailor writes that "Opthalmia has struck the Captain as well as the Africans aboard the ship.") The line "those are altar lights that were his eyes" may be seen as a scathing indictment of a Christian people with eyes blind to the enslavement of their fellowman. It is a blindness that prevails in the poem until John Quincy Adams, as the champion of human rights, speaks "with so much passion of the right of chattel slaves" (lines 164-65) and their will to be free. When the justice he represents proves not to be blind, it opens the way for the African "to life upon these shores." According to Elizabeth Drew, Eliot uses the Shakespeare line "Those are pearls that were his eyes" as the central symbol for the whole of Western tradition, which, as he saw it, was lifeless as a pearl. Eliot also used the symbol to suggest metamorphosis from blindness to vision. Drew further notes that Eliot's purpose in making the allusion was to symbolize the transmutation of life into art--a creative act the poet must find, not only through suffering but in suffering. Whether in response to the Eliot model or not, Hayden develops this dimension of the metaphor in the sailor's letter: "8 bells. I cannot sleep, for I am sick with fear, but writing eases fear a little since still my eyes can see these words take shape upon the page & so I write, as one would turn to exorcism. The passage speaks of the transformation from blindness to vision that can be effected through the arts. The blindness theme is continued in another variation of The Tempest motif which appears in part 3: Deep in the festering hold thy father lies, the corpse of mercy rots with him, rats eat love's rotten gelid eyes. In this passage the poet also decries the rotting bodies of his ancestors interred in the holds of slave ships. The contrast of "rotten" with what ought to be living thoughts--"mercy" an "love"--is reminiscent of yet another precedent set by Eliot in "The Wasteland," especially in "Burial of the Dead." Further reminiscent of "The Wasteland" is the use of several voices, some of them ghostly, including those of the poet-observer, of the praying sailor, of the old slaver, and of the attorneys who speak for the Spanish deponents. As in "The Wasteland," though to a lesser extent, Hayden shuffles history, past and present, in his depiction of the African's "coming to life upon these shores." Hart Crane's epic "The Bridge" also influenced the shaping of "Middle Passage." After announcing his vision of hope, which he contrasted to Eliot's negations, Crane attempted to create, through the use of history and folklore and of his key bridge symbol, the American identity, achievement, and future hopes. It is, certainly, a subject matter for a myth that could support an American epic. This is a vision similar to that of Hayden's poem--a vision that creates an Afro-American identity around the central metaphor of the "Middle Passage" and a vision that carries, indeed, a constructive note of hope. At the time he composed "Middle Passage," Hayden was a young man with certain identifiable ideas about Afro-American history, justice, and social change. He was, however, a poet who was making a search in himself for a new iconography that would inform his poetry along with the beliefs he had accepted. He was tossed up to rhetorical heights by his reckless faith in his poetic genius and scholarship; yet he was brought to a more even keel somewhat later by his stem sense of self-discipline and self-criticism. The true extent of these flights of optimism and the degree of his self-discipline and self-criticism cannot be known. Hayden said that the working sheets of "Middle Passage" are long since lost. Nonetheless, there are four published versions of the poem: version A, in Phylon (1941); version B, in Cross Section (1945); version C, in A Ballad of Remembrance (1962); and version D, in Selected Poems (1966). The painstaking revisions of "Middle Passage" from 1945 to 1966 produced a poem that won the acclaim of eminent critics and fellow-poets. A passage from the letter that Allen Tate wrote to him about the poem will indicate the measure of that approval: "I am especially moved by 'Middle Passage,' a beautifully written poem. The power is in the restraint and the purity of diction." More important is the fact that the poem was produced by a black poet speaking of black history and heritage in the most sophisticated traditions of twentieth-century western poetry.

Barbara B. Sims: On "We Real Cool"

Until the last line, the element of bravado in the diction and rhythm has made the activities of the street people seem somehow defensible, if not downright desirable.  A certain pride in being outside the conventions, institutions, and legal structures of the predominant society is conveyed.  Escaping the drudgery and dullness of school and work has left the lives of these drop-outs open to many romantic possibilities.

However, the tone changes dramatically when the reader learns the street people "Die soon."  At once their defiant and complacent attitudes seem quite pathetic, and the reader wonders whom the cool people are trying to kid about the desirability of their disordered lives.

Sims, Barbara B.  "Brooks's 'We Real Cool.'"  Explicator 34 (1976): 58.

Anne Colewell: On "One Art"

[Colwell is examining the various drafts of "One Art," and focuses here on Bishop’s struggle to write the last stanza.]

… [B]y embodying uncontrollable emotion in a form meant to control it, and in an utterance meant to deny it, Bishop can create tension, ambivalence, and a poignant recognition of the pathos of human attempts to control the uncontrollable.

In the earlier drafts of this stanza, Bishop struggled with the desire to say and unsay, to say two things at once, both admitting to the truth of the argument that the villanelle has established and admitting to the evasion of the truth that the tone has insisted on. To accomplish this she tried lines such as "of course, I’m lying" and "it’s evident I’m telling the truth"; one draft of one verse completely explodes the villanelle form:

All that I write is false, it’s evident The art of losing isn’t hard to master oh no anything at all anything but one’s love. (Say it: disaster).

This duality that Bishop works so hard to achieve in draft after draft (there are seventeen drafts of "One Art" in vassar’s manuscript collection) she finally finds in one word, "shan’t." This word, with its overformal stiffness, its anachronistic sound, its school-marmish precision, says both "I’m lying" and "I’m not lying." Using the future perfect tense allows an ambiguity that no other grammatical structure can provide. Bishop accomplished the feat of expressing her ambivalence about her own endeavor; in the word "shan’t" she combined opposite meanings in one utterance.


From Anne Colwell, "Geography III: The Art of Losing," Chapter 4 in Inscrutable Houses: Metaphors of the Body in the Poems of Elizabeth Bishop (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1997), 178

Katherine Kearns: On "After Apple-Picking"

In Frost's poetry any deviation, not only from the iambic foot but from the iambic pentameter line as well, is an important marker of the speaker's state of mind, his control, and his capacity for irony. "After Apple Picking" keeps resolutely returning to pentameter lines, but the speaker is drowsy, and the opening twelve-syllable line - "My long two-pointed ladder's sticking through a tree" - is like the last murmured words before sleep. Of course, it also represents, as does the whole masterful structure of the poem, Frost's own precise control of tone, as he creates a speaker who is precariously "upon [his] way to sleep." This fatigued vulnerability manifests itself in an escalating slippage of control from ten-syllable lines to foreshortened lines like "For all / That struck the earth," or eleven-syllable lines like "No matter if not bruised or spiked with stubble." And as the speaker moves toward an increasing intuition of the symbolic underpinnings of his exhaustion, which is the result not just of his picking apples but of other more visceral frustrations and fears, the frequency of these variations increases. (Lines 1, 2, 14, 16, 18, 19, 25, 27, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37, 39, and 42 vary from the pentameter; only lines 18 and 34 are extra-syllabic.) His awareness and fear of this loss of control are manifested in the final lines:

The woodchuck could say whether it's like his Long sleep, as I describe its coming on, Or just some human sleep.

What he fears is not so much death as the very state the poem has mimicked - that is, a suspension between not-life and not-death where language is narcotized toward incoherence and uncontrol.

. . . .

Matter . . . makes itself felt even as it capitulates to its own variable nature. If the apple will fall in "After Apple Picking," if it, like the speaker on his way to dreaming, is about to go bruised to the cider heap where it will be pressed into an essence of itself, it nonetheless maintains through all its transmutations an identifiable appleness. The apple holds, against the authoritative prosodic erosion of waking reality into dream state, its own sensual place as an essential ingredient in the spell to which the speaker is succumbing. It glows, its russet flecks showing clear and its scent in the air, as potent as Snow White's apple, while the ice mirror has broken and the speaker is moving toward a hibernatory trance. Such things reify the potent opacity of the word, which is invested with an entire history of meanings, incrementally awakened within the volatile substance of the poem.


From Robert Frost and a Poetics of Appetite. Copyright © 1994 by Cambridge University Press. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Jay Parini: On "The Road Not Taken"

A close look at the poem reveals that Frost's walker encounters two nearlv identical paths: so he insists, repeatedly. The walker looks down one, first, then the other, "as just as fair." Indeed, "the passing there / Had worn them reallv about the same." As if the reader hasn't gotten the message, Frost says for a third time. "And both that morning equally lay/ In leaves no step had trodden black." What, then, can we make of the final stanza? My guess is that Frost, the wily ironist, is saying something like this: "When I am old, like all old men, I shall make a myth of my life. I shall pretend, as we all do, that I took the less traveled road. But I shall be lying." Frost signals the mockingly self-inflated tone of the last stanza by repeating the word "I," which rhymes - several times - with the inflated word "sigh." Frost wants the reader to know that what he will be saying, that he took the road less traveled, is a fraudulent position, hence the sigh.


From "Frost" in Columbia Literary History of the United States. Ed. Emory Elliott. Copyright © 1988 by the Columbia University Press.