a certain Slant of light

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 –

~Emily Dickinson
Image via Pexels.com

I don’t remember when I first encountered this poem–in high school, perhaps, or maybe even middle school. Certainly it was in a textbook, offered up as an example of the work of a famous American poet. Regardless, it’s always rung deeply true for me. There is something about the light on a winter afternoon that’s oppressive, that reminds me of endings and the oncoming rush of darkness.

We’re nearing the darkest day of the year. A week from this Saturday is the winter solstice. After that, the balance will tip back towards light. But for now, darkness gathers its force. For now, winter afternoon sunbeams are a reminder of what has passed, what we have lost, what we will lose. For now, the light is a rare and precious thing, but not without barbs.

The music of the spheres

Musicians wrestle everywhere:
All day, among the crowded air,
I hear the silver strife;
And—waking long before the dawn—
Such transport breaks upon the town
I think it that “new life!”

It is not bird, it has no nest;
Nor band, in brass and scarlet dressed,
Nor tambourine, nor man;
It is not hymn from pulpit read,—
The morning stars the treble led
On time’s first afternoon!

Some say it is the spheres at play!
Some say that bright majority
Of vanished dames and men!
Some think it service in the place
Where we, with late, celestial face,
Please God, shall ascertain!

~Emily Dickinson
Harmony of the World
Image via Wikipedia.

The sun is about to crest the horizon. While I have sat at my desk this morning, the sky has bled from black to whisper-pale violet and coral to predawn blue. Birds have begun singing, though their chorus is nowhere near as exuberant as it was a month ago.

What is the music Dickinson is talking about in this poem, and who are the musicians? She tells us that they are not birds–but then, what are they? Is their music even audible, or is she describing a sound beyond sound, one of those ethereal experiences of insight into a world past our own?

Is she referring to the music of the spheres, the ancient notion that the movements of the planets in the heavens corresponded to a kind of song? There is something very Dickinson-y about this.

Maybe she is talking, too, about inspiration, or its source. It is invisible. It comes from seemingly nowhere and everywhere, and not everyone can hear it at all times. In the final stanza, the speaker merely puts forward others’ theories–some say it is the spheres, some say it is the departed (ghosts? angels?), and some say it is the sound of Heaven itself.

She ends on this note. Uncertainty. But also possibility. Whence does the music flow? One day, hopefully, we will learn.

A Sunday poem

Some keep the Sabbath going to church;
I keep it staying at home,
With a bobolink for a chorister,
And an orchard for a dome.

Some keep the Sabbath in surplice;
I just wear my wings,
And instead of tolling the bell for church, Our little sexton sings.

God preaches,—a noted clergyman,—
And the sermon is never long;
So instead of getting to heaven at last,
I’m going all along!

~Emily Dickinson

In deep summer, evenings in the woods behind my house are punctuated by the liquid silver songs of wood thrushes. It’s impossible to do justice to the sound; the best I can do is to say that if you had been trudging across a desert without water for hours under the heat of a burning sun and suddenly a pitcher of water miraculously appeared in front of you–if that experience was a sound, it would be the song of a wood thrush.

It is impossible not to be awed by this music. It’s unearthly, beyond perfect–divine. The notes tumble down on you from the branches of an ancient oak or the fierce straight column of a walnut tree, bathing you in sound. You do not see the thrush–you only believe it is there. And it is. For a moment, it is everything, every sense, feeling, thought, desire. Nothing else remains. The seconds of the thrush’s song are rare moments of perfection in a glaringly imperfect world.

The heart asks pleasure first

The heart asks pleasure first,
And then, excuse from pain;
And then, those little anodynes
That deaden suffering;

And then, to go to sleep;
And then, if it should be
The will of its Inquisitor,
The liberty to die.

~Emily Dickinson

My first experience of this poem was not as a poem, but as a piece of music. It’s arguably the most well-known tune in the film The Piano.

When I first saw the film, I loved the music and hated the story. I complained about it to my then-boyfriend.

“This is the worst love story ever. The woman is trapped in this horrible life and her husband is a jerk and so is the guy she falls in love with, and her kid is creepy, and this movie is horrible.”

After politely listening to my rant, my now-husband, who has still to this day never seen the film, said, “The love story isn’t about the guys. It’s about the piano.”


As an English major, I felt incredibly sheepish. How had I missed this?

“Oh,” I said. “Okay. This is an amazing movie.”

I can’t read this poem without its namesake song from The Piano playing on repeat in my head. The tune fits the poem beautifully. Often, song versions of Dickinson’s songs sound too sweet to me. This one, however, seems to perfectly capture the mood not only of the film, but the poem.

Oriole, Part 1

TO hear an oriole sing
May be a common thing,
Or only a divine.

It is not of the bird
Who sings the same, unheard,
As unto crowd.

The fashion of the ear
Attireth that it hear
In dun or fair.

So whether it be rune,
Or whether it be none,
Is of within;

The “tune is in the tree,”
The sceptic showeth me;
“No, sir! In thee!”

~emily dickinson

This is a weird and wonderful poem. Structurally it’s very different from most Dickinson poems, with its three-line stanzas. The last line of each is markedly shorter than the first two. There is an abrupt, revelatory feel to these short lines, as if Dickinson is demanding that we sit up straight and pay attention because something important is about to be unfolded. The whole thing reads like some obscure ancient riddle.

I think what she’s saying is that the music of birdsong is within each of us–that is, the perception of the song as music. The “only” in the first stanza is interesting. “Or only a divine” sounded to me on the first few readings as if the poet was saying “only” in the sense of “merely,” which feels odd and yet somehow perfectly Dickinsonian, minimizing the divine for some kind of effect. But on about the third reading I wonder if she means “only” in the sense of “purely” or “exclusively.”

This whole poem is like a riddle, the answer of which is different for each person because it is buried deep within ourselves, like our perception of the oriole’s song.


HEART not so heavy as mine,
Wending late home,
As it passed my window
Whistled itself a tune,—

A careless snatch, a ballad,
A ditty of the street;
Yet to my irritated ear
An anodyne so sweet,

It was as if a bobolink,
Sauntering this way,
Carolled and mused and carolled,
Then bubbled slow away.

It was as if a chirping brook
Upon a toilsome way
Set bleeding feet to minuets
Without the knowing why.

To-morrow, night will come again,
Weary, perhaps, and sore.
Ah, bugle, by my window,
I pray you stroll once more!

~Emily dickinson

Life has felt heavy lately–heavy and overwhelming. It’s crammed full of things–obligations, challenges, setbacks, disappointments, unpleasant surprises. This poem captures beautifully the heaviness of the soul without going into specifics–we know that the speaker is weighed down. But the point of it all is the moment of sweetness, the unexpected beauty of a song sung by a passerby. Even at its heaviest, life offers us these moments, scattered like seafoam, glittering against the somber background of the everyday.

No matter how busy you are, how distracted, how overwhelmed, how overburdened, may you find your anodyne today.