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
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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.

like flakes, like stars

They dropped like flakes, they dropped like stars,
Like petals from a rose,
When suddenly across the June
A wind with fingers goes.

They perished in the seamless grass,—
No eye could find the place;
But God on his repealless list
Can summon every face.

~Emily Dickinson
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What a shift this is from some of the other Dickinson death poems I’ve read so far this month! Unlike the God who lets children perish unremarked, the God of this poem remembers every face among those who have died. There must have been so much going on inside Dickinson’s head at any given time. I have to wonder if her poetry was an overpressure valve, a way to let out some of the bottled thought before she imploded.

I chose this poem for today not because of the death, though, or the theology, but for the mention of falling stars. The Geminid meteor shower is beginning. You can read about it here. It will be peaking this weekend, and while the waning full moon will make it harder to see meteors, some should be visible nonetheless, and the clear winter air will make up in part for the brightness of the moon.

A meteor is a strange and wondrous thing. Some no bigger than grains, they streak the sky, their death-throes moments of beauty and awe. Each trail of light is the flaming disintegration of a unique piece of matter that is no more. How like soldiers falling. How like a thousand, thousand deaths.

But there is so much beauty in this destruction. Each fall is a flash of wonder, a shred of insight into the workings of the deep heavens.

I hope you find some magic in the night sky.

from frost

Some, too fragile for winter winds,
The thoughtful grave encloses,—
Tenderly tucking them in from frost
Before their feet are cold.

Never the treasures in her nest
The cautious grave exposes,
Building where schoolboy dare not look
And sportsman is not bold.

This covert have all the children
Early aged, and often cold,—
Sparrows unnoticed by the Father;
Lambs for whom time had not a fold.

~Emily Dickinson
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Well, this is Christmassy. A poem about dead children, cold in the grave. Sheesh, Emily. What’s most notable about this poem, though, is that it reads like the kid version of “Because I could not stop for Death.” The grave/death is depicted as a kind caretaker, gently tucking them in, protecting them from the harshness of life. It provides safe harbor, a place where nothing can find or harm them.

And then there’s the ending. Dickinson ends this one with a little heresy. Describing the dead children Biblically as “lambs” and “sparrows,” she says that they are “unnoticed by the Father,” contradicting the Biblical passage about how no sparrow falls unnoticed by God, and all the Biblical references to God as loving shepherd who lets no sheep become lost.

What to do with this? Dickinson argues that death is kinder to these lost lambs than God–more attentive and protective. One can only wonder what her preacher father would have thought of such a poem, how Puritan New England would have received it. Maybe Dickinson tied up her poems and tucked them away not because she wanted to remain anonymous, but because she knew her world wasn’t ready for them.

The lower metres of the year

The murmuring of bees has ceased;
But murmuring of some
Posterior, prophetic,
Has simultaneous come,—

The lower metres of the year,
When nature’s laugh is done,—
The Revelations of the book
Whose Genesis is June.

~Emily Dickinson
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I love this one. And not just because of the bees. Dickinson begins with a specific, concrete example–this is the time of year when bees are no longer active. Not visibly, anyway. They are clustered in their hives in cold weather, keeping each other warm with their little bee bodies. While the cold must be stressful, worker bees in winter can live for several months. During the height of a honeyflow in summer, a worker’s lifespan is measured in weeks. So while the cold is a danger, winter is also a time of rest for bees. But I digress. Dickinson says that while the bees’ murmuring has ended, for now, another has started. I tend to think that she’s referring here not to an actual sound, but to the signs of winter itself.

In the second stanza, she continues her expansion from the specific to a bigger, more philosophical idea. In this envisioning of the year, June is the beginning, the Genesis–and why not? After all, it’s totally arbitrary to start the new year in January. The ancient Celts began their new year with Samhain and celebrations of the harvest. You can start the new year anywhere in the circle of the year, really.

So winter, for Dickinson, is “the lower metres of the year.” Nature is done laughing, finished with explosions of vegetation and animal life. It is time for rest, time to withdraw into the hive, to come together for warmth, to while away the coldest, darkest part of the year in communion with ourselves and one another.

the Ice

They won’t frown always — some sweet Day
When I forget to tease —
They’ll recollect how cold I looked
And how I just said “Please.”

Then They will hasten to the Door
To call the little Girl
Who cannot thank Them for the Ice
That filled the lisping full.

~Emily Dickinson
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Wow, so this is an “I told you so” poem par excellence. The pathos is dripping from every line. The speaker in this poem is a little child who seems used to being chastised or ignored, and who, as far as we know, has only ever said “please.” I am reminded of Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist, with his “Could I please have some more?”

The child seems horribly ignored–she imagines a future in which she is gone and the faceless “They” of the poem hurry to the door to call her home. But she is dead and buried, iced over in winter.

Geez. Emo Emily.

November left

The night was wide, and furnished scant
With but a single star,
That often as a cloud it met
Blew out itself for fear.

The wind pursued the little bush,
And drove away the leaves
November left; then clambered up
And fretted in the eaves.

No squirrel went abroad;
A dog’s belated feet
Like intermittent plush were heard
Adown the empty street.

To feel if blinds be fast,
And closer to the fire
Her little rocking-chair to draw,
And shiver for the poor,

The housewife’s gentle task.
“How pleasanter,” said she
Unto the sofa opposite,
“The sleet than May—no thee!”

~Emily Dickinson
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This is a perfect poem for the start of December, in so many ways. Dickinson begins with the image of a vast night whose darkness is interrupted only by a lone star–and that star is frequently obscured by scudding clouds. With the personification of the star as fearfully extinguishing itself, the poet captures the very human sense of apprehension many of us feel as we approach the darkest day of the year.

November in this poem is like a small, disgruntled creature–it leaves, but then doesn’t, climbing up into the eaves to linger and fret. Just as there is but a lone star in the sky, there is a single living creature out on this dark, cold night–a dog, returning home late, padding almost silently along. Does plush make a sound? The speaker says it does–but it must be a sound that is all but silent. With the wind blowing, how could anyone hear that plush?

In the last two stanzas, the speaker brings us inside a home, where a houswife’s duties are to make sure the blinds are fastened against the night and weather, and to “shiver for the poor.” In the final stanza, the woman addresses “the sofa opposite”–presumably there is someone there? Her spouse? A child? A friend? Maybe a cat or dog?? She remarks that the inclement weather is more pleasant than May. It’s an interesting comment–on one hand, it’s unexpected. Of course May is more pleasant. But for the housewife, May likely means all manner of chores, while the sleet affords her the opportunity to sit, cozy by the fire.

The last line, however–or rather, the last two words–are perplexing. The housewife says that the sleet is more pleasant than May, and then adds, “no thee!” She’s addressing the sofa opposite, and if there’s someone on it, what do we make of this remark? Is she saying, “No, you are more pleasant than May,” or is she saying that sleet is more pleasant than May because there is now “no thee”? She could either be complimenting or issuing a Dickinson-style burn. I really can’t tell which one. What do you think?

Gentian

GOD made a little gentian;
It tired to be a rose
And failed, and all the summer laughed.
But just before the snows
There came a purple creature 5
That ravished all the hill;
And summer hid her forehead,
And mockery was still.
The frosts were her condition;
The Tyrian would not come 10
Until the North evoked it.
“Creator! shall I bloom?”

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Emily Dickinson apparently really liked gentians. I have only just learned of them this week. That’s about all I’ve got for today, because life has gotten zooey and I do not have time to contemplate gentians at the moment. Here’s hoping you’ve got a little more wiggle room!