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What slant of light is this? How low must the sun sink on the horizon to project its pink, or gold, or silver ray across the snowy fields? The poet makes no attempt to describe the sense impressions but only to register their emotional resonance. This is done by the oxymoronic phrases "Heavenly Hurt" and "imperial affliction" that link exultation with anguish. And the speaker, generalizing from her reaction to that of a universal "we," personifies nature itself as attentive to these promptings from beyond circumference.

Here, too, definition comes by negation. There is "no scar," "None may teach it." When the speaker strains for an analogy to clarify her experience, she characteristically hits upon one outside Emily Dickinson's experience. Those "Cathedral Tunes" stimulate the imagination with their "Heft," presumably that "weight of glory" Dickinson cited once from 2 Corinthians 4:17 when telling a friend about a morning landscape that awakened painful awareness of her mother's recent death. Never having been in a cathedral, except imaginatively in "I've heard an Organ talk, sometimes--," Dickinson probably relied on the memoirs of American Protestant travelers in Europe to discover how it would feel to hear grandly complex vocal and instrumental music in a Gothic or Romanesque setting from whose spell the visitor would constantly struggle to free himself. Perhaps she recalled Ik Marvel's report of Holy Week services in the Sistine Chapel when "the sweet, mournful flow of the Miserere begins again, growing in force and depth till the whole chapel rings, and the balcony of the choir trembles; then it subsides again into the low, soft wall of a single voice, so prolonged, so tremulous, and so real, that the heart aches-for Christ is dead!" The death of God, the death of a loved one, her own death: All these things registered on Dickinson through this visual emblem of the dying day. And it was fitting that she should reveal these awarenesses only gradually and by indirection--foregoing natural exactitude for depth of psychological response to intuited absence.


From Dickinson: Strategies of Limitation. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1985. Copyright © 1985 by University of Massachusetts Press.