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We might first note that, beautiful as the poem is, the satisfactions which it affords us are not primarily visual. Even though it is focused outward on a natural scene, it does not mention a single color or describe a single form. Are we looking at woods, a lawn, a grove, fields, hills? Is there snow on the ground? We are not sure. What is the weather? Is it a bleakly clear, hard, dry afternoon? Or does the sun break through the clouds in one brief, poignant slant? Is it early to mid afternoon, or later? Does the sunlight fade because of sunset or because of cloud cover? My guess--which is only intuitive and based upon my memories of growing up in northern New Jersey--is that it is not sunset, that the day is mostly cloudy, very forlorn, that around three in the afternoon the sun appears through a rift in the stratus, infinitely tantalizing, melancholy, like the reminder of some other life, some other season, some other realm (perhaps heavenly) than the claustral, futureless gray of winter. But this is pure guesswork, without a shred of textual backing.

Despite its visual vagueness, however, the poem does in many ways resemble a painting. Its attention is directed outward at a landscape, not at the author/speaker herself or some other human protagonist. It is true that the implied author constitutes a definite presence in this poem--a more pronounced presence than we feel a painter has in a typical landscape painting--but she never refers to herself as taking action. She does not walk to a window. She does not pour a cup of tea. She does not sigh or weep. She simply looks.

Where, then, is that action which distinguishes literature from painting and without which neither this nor any poem can successfully compete with a good painting? Obviously it is in the scene itself, and it is made possible by the fact that, although the poem has the feel of a painting, the duration over which it scans its landscape is longer than the instantaneous "duration" captured in a painting. Within this duration, "When it comes ... When it goes," different events take place, events whose source is not human. Indeed, the protagonist of the poem is the landscape itself, whose "Slant of light" does things ("oppresses," "comes," "goes"), a landscape which "listens" and whose "Shadows--hold their breath." The poem, then, is, in addition to its other implications, very much about time. It presents, to borrow Wordsworth's expression, a "spot of time."


From Style and Authenticity in Postmodern Poetry. Copyright © 1986 by the Curators of the University of Missouri.