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Diminishing the authority of intentionality helps ward off the author's dominion, but to the extent that conveyed meaning is itself a threat the author is not the only enemy of responsiveness. No authorial master appears in "There's a certain slant of light," for instance, but the scene certainly imposes "Heavenly Hurt" as it inscribes upon the soul "internal difference, / Where the Meanings, are." Typically such moments are spurned as painful, perhaps overwhelming, and also craved as an intensity beyond the quotidian. In other words, they belong to an esthetics of the sublime. And a chief issue, particularly in the wonderfully multivalent line "None may teach it--Any," is the authority or legitimacy of the meanings written within. If, as the tone of the poem suggests, the meanings manifest some natural or supernatural order, then the self can only accede to them. If, however, as in other instances where response is prolonged, the slant of light only marks or rearranges the internal differences, which the self then as a separate act gives meaning to, a crucial freedom to determine meaning is maintained. Indeed, we once again have a three-part process: the stimulus of the light, the inscription of the internal differences, and the interpretation of these signifiers by the no longer helpless soul.

The poetic and rhetorical issue broached by "There's a certain slant of light" is the possibility of natural symbolism. As a rule, romantic writers have searched eagerly for some form of symbolism that might claim natural or supernatural sanction, thereby transcending mere custom. . . .

By contrast Dickinson’ poetry regularly works to denaturalize the available symbolic resources of our condition and culture.


From The Dickinson Sublime. (University of Wisconsin Press, 1990). Copyright © 1990 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System.