Poem of the Day: ‘There’s a certain Slant of light’

The poem has the ballad meter that, by loosening and tightening, her genius could make express any mood, from joy to grief.

Via Wikimedia Commons
Daguerreotype of Emily Dickinson in 1847 or 1848, detail. Via Wikimedia Commons

With “Poem of the Day,” The New York Sun offers a daily portion of verse selected by the Sun’s poetry editor, Joseph Bottum of Dakota State University, with the help of a North Carolina poet, Sally Thomas. Tied to the day, or the season, or just individual taste, the poems will be typically drawn from the lesser-known portion of the history of English verse. In the coming months we will be reaching out to contemporary poets for examples of current, primarily formalist work, to show that poetry can still serve as a delight to the ear, an instruction to the mind, and a tonic for the soul.

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Although T.S. Eliot wrote the most famous Ash Wednesday poem, nearly every English-language poet has felt the pull to join the feeling of late winter and the Lenten sense of a penitential season. Emily Dickinson (1830–1886) shows us an example in “There’s a certain Slant of light.” The poem has the ballad meter (quatrains of four-foot lines alternating with three-foot lines) that, by loosening and tightening, her genius could make express any mood, from joy to grief. The winter light, she says, is like grave church music—and it carries a heavenly hurt. A poem to read as Lent begins today on Ash Wednesday.

There’s a certain Slant of light
by Emily Dickinson

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—


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