Searching for Scars. An interpretation of Emily Dickinson's poem 258 "There's a certain Slant of light"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2002
19 Pages, Grade: 1,3 (A-)



1 Introduction

2 Dispersing the "light" into a spectrum

3 Conclusion

4 Bibliography

1 Introduction

To interpret Dickinson will stay a challenge and a never-ending task. Her poems are so deep and full of meaning that every word in them carries the multiple of its normal weight; her poems are at the same time precise and not precise at all. If we try to pin them down to a specific meaning it seems to lose some of its colorful variety, which in some of her poems is even visible by Dickinson's practice of leaving alternative word choices next to each other without choosing one. Robert Weisbuch gives in his essay "Prisming Dickinson; or, Gathering Paradise by Letting Go"[1] the helpful triple advice: "Don't point; don't pry; don't settle for one truth." In order to analyze Dickinson’s poem #258 "There's a certain Slant of light" I could not help to disregard the advice "don't pry", and I did my best to at least not pin down the things I pointed, and I was careful not to "settle for one truth". Emily Dickinson's words shine in various colors and so do the possible interpretations. Her poems might tell every person something else. In this essay will analyze her poem #258, give possible interpretations of it and demonstrate what it tells me without clouding its shine.

2 Dispersing the "light" into a spectrum

As many poems do, Emily Dickinson's poem "There's a certain Slant of light" confronts the reader with the problem of the relationship between the poem's manifest content and the actual meaning it encodes. Yet, in this poem there is even more to that question, because the content itself is not evident. When we start reading the first two lines of the poem, we think of a nature poem that describes a certain quality of light. In a nature poem we would expect the light to be described in more detail, so that we can see exactly this kind of light with our inner eye. However, Dickinson does not describe the light in detail, but leaves the nature of that certain light to the imagination of the reader. Instead, the effect it produces, the oppression, the state of mind is the object of the following lines, especially of stanza two and three, and thus with line three the poem quits being a nature poem. So what is the poem about? It becomes obvious that the poem is not in the first place about "light", but about a state of mind. It describes a mood which can be effected not only by this light, but also by "Cathedral Tunes". The likening of the effect of the light to the effect of "Cathedral Tunes" shows that the light actually is not as important as it seems in the beginning, because the important factor is the effect and thus the light could be replaced by a different phenomenon that would produce the same effect. But what, if not the light itself, is the content of the poem, and what is the meaning it conveys? The content of the poem is an experience that affects a person's state of mind. The experience follows the encounter of that specific quality of winter light. In that sense, the light is an important feature in the poem, but the content of the poem is the state of mind of the person that encounters the light, not the light itself. The question of the meaning the content conveys will be the main concern of the following pages, although it is for sure, that there is no single simple answer.

As to the formal aspects, poem #258 is a typical poem of Emily Dickinson in that it combines decidedly regular features with irregular ones. The poem consists of four stanzas with four lines each. The meter is regularly trochaic, but the last trochee often is catalectic and misses the unstressed syllable. The length of the first and third lines of each stanza varies between trimeters (six syllables) and complete and incomplete tetrameters (eight and seven syllables respectively) while the second and fourth lines of each stanza all consist of five syllables. The rhyme pattern also combines regular and irregular features. The regular second and forth lines of each stanza have an exact end-rhyme, whereas the first and third lines only have a imperfect rhyme that is mainly based upon a repeating consonant repetition: light-Heft, us-difference, Any-affliction, listens-distance. Thus the rhyme pattern could be described by abcb, if one considers only the exact rhymes, or as abab, if one also takes the suspended rhymes into account. Alternatively one could use small and capital letters, aBaB, to express the difference in the quality of the rhymes. Further we note Dickinson's extensive use of dashes. Their purpose may be to force the reader to slow down and pause before or after an important expression in order to give him time to think about the meaning. This is the same purpose we pursue by pausing when we speak. So what Emily Dickinson might actually be doing is imitating the sound of spoken sentences by her punctuation. I think Edith Wylder said it best:

Her punctuation system is an integral part of her attempt to create in written form the precision of meaning inherent in the tone of the human voice.[2]

A similar purpose as her dashes have her ungrammatical commas, as for example the commas in "That oppresses, like the Heft" (stanza 1, line 3) or "Where the Meanings, are –" (stanza 2 line 4). The difference between the commas and the dashes might only be the length of the pause. A dash sets a word further apart and disrupts the sentence structure more than a comma does. Another formal practice of Dickinson is the capitalization of important words. However, she does not capitalize every word that is important, but rather only those important words that the reader might not pay enough attention to or not take as important as they should be taken. So she does not capitalize the word "light" in the first stanza, because there is no danger that the reader will not pay enough attention to it, whereas she sees the need to capitalize, for example, "Afternoon", "Any" and "Landscape" because those are words that might be neglected.

It is not easy to grasp the theme let alone the meaning of the poem. Emily Dickinson starts the poem by introducing a natural phenomenon that is familiar to most people: the strange quality of winter light in the afternoon. From this starting point she takes off into a highly personal experience that takes on the dimension of a religious experience. As we will see, the poem is so full of religious language that we can not miss the hint that the meaning of the poem must to some extent be linked to religion. But the tone of the poem is not joyful or respectful, as it would fit a religious experience, but pensive and depressive, almost painful. The speaker talks about oppression, "Hurt" and "Despair". Furthermore an important theme of the poem seems to be the closeness to death. "Death" is the word the poem ends in, and it is supported by expressions like "Winter", "Afternoon" and "Shadows", which all have the potential to connote the end of life and "A certain slant of winter light brings an intimation of mortality"[3]. It might be physical death, but a mental or spiritual death seems to me more probable. Nature, religion, depression, death – it is most likely that – if at all – the meaning of the poem may be found in a combination of all of those aspects.


[1] Robert Weisbuch, "Prisming Dickinson; or, Gathering Paradise by Letting Go" in Gudrun Grabher, Roland Hagenbüchle, Cristanne Miller (eds.), The Emily Dickinson Handbook. Amherst, 1999, 197-223.

[2] Edith Wylder, The Last Face: Emily Dickinson's Manuscripts. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1971, 4.

[3] Joan Kirkby, Emily Dickinson. Women Writers Series. London: Macmillan, 1991, 27.

Excerpt out of 19 pages


Searching for Scars. An interpretation of Emily Dickinson's poem 258 "There's a certain Slant of light"
University of Heidelberg
American Poetry: Romanticism
1,3 (A-)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
550 KB
Searching, Scars, Emily, Dickinson, There, Slant, American, Poetry, Romanticism
Quote paper
Simone Kurz (Author), 2002, Searching for Scars. An interpretation of Emily Dickinson's poem 258 "There's a certain Slant of light", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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