A Certain Slant of Light, Winter Afternoons

new england winter afternoon

Winter has its charms and compensations, yes, and a terrible abbreviated monochromatic beauty, but it’s also a challenge for certain light sensitive, shivery types, requiring ever-increasing degrees of resolve as they march deeper into December, dreading January and that thing out there in the dark called “February.”

We know from our past repeated exposures to this monster that, as the temperature drops and the days grow shorter, our upper lips (if not blue and frozen in place) must stiffen and our jaws must jut farther forward, if we are to “make it.”  We just have to gut it out whatever it takes, through each successive gray bone-chilling winter day, one day after another. Or else.

Napoleon must have felt this way, his and his horse’s head leaning into the wind and marching resolutely through the snow-blind Russian winter with his finely attired-overly inspired army of dopes bringing up his hopeless mis-guided rear-end. Or Poe, dreaming of his “Ultima Thule.”

Myself, I should have been born a bear. For I am a bear in winter. Ursus, major and minor. It’s in my stars. And in my head, I guess. If I had been born a bear? I’d have an excuse for my behavior this time of year.  I’m so sad I was not born a bear.  Oh my gosh. (sob, sniff, ugh)

Thank you for listening. Sorry 😉

Emily Dickinson Museum, Amherst, Massachusetts...

Emily Dickinson Museum, Amherst, Massachusetts – rear oblique view of Emily Dickinson’s house. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Anyhow, moving right along and warming to the subject at hand…

Emily Dickinson had a similar visceral and emotional reaction to the pall of winter and captured the impression of gloom and doomy-ness it made on her heart and soul memorably and for the ages in the following poem—

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, Amherst, MA, 1861

You can almost hear a heavy funereal church organ in the background, and feel the loss of sense that the freezing experience as they slide toward the vortex of death (cf. Poe’s “Ultima Thule”), the ebb in the limbs and failing vision, the sleepiness of letting go, of giving in to the inevitable, in this poem, the images are so carefully chosen and well placed.

Where the “meanings are” refers to that indefinite but critical place in our minds where we make sense of our lives, self, and interpret all that we experience.

I think it is a sense of suffocation Dickinson is trying to render here (“the Seal Despair” that is overwhelmingly powerful) in the very air we breathe at such wintery late-in-the-day times.  All nature responds to it (“the Landscape listens–/The Shadows—hold their breath”), but when it leaves, we soon forget it, the pain and struggle, the grief it causes us, ever so gradually, much as we eventually forget and recover from the heart-rending sorrow of the loss of a loved one, for it is “like the Distance–/On the look of Death—“

And that confidence is enabling, that hope and trust in the eventuality of forgetfulness, is what Dickinson and people like her depend on, the light at the end of the tunnel, Spring! to spring us back to life.

About Margaret Jean Langstaff

A lifelong critical reader with literary tastes, a novelist, short story writer, essayist, book critic, and professional book editor for many years. A consultant to publishers and authors, providing manuscript critiques and a full range of editorial services. A friend and supporter of all other readers and writers. A collector of signed modern first editions. Animal lover and tree hugger. Follow me on Twitter @LangstaffEditor
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7 Responses to A Certain Slant of Light, Winter Afternoons

  1. Lonie Fulgham says:

    Your prose is so poetic, hear? 😉 Wonderful as always. I was hoping you would post some Dickinson once I realized it her birthday had just passed. Thank you!


    • You are a doll (“as always”), hear? Dickinson and I actually have almost the same dread December birthday, albeit more than a hundred years apart. And, as for mine, I claim it to be a more excruciating annual occurrence (which I prefer to ignore in recent years), because a “good Catholic girl” born on the “Feast of the Immaculate Conception,” that would be Dec. 8 on the Liturgical Calendar of the Church, is to be forever marked and required to attend mass and wonder, “OMG, what does it mean?” One is just never immaculate enuf, you know? Thank you, Josh. You have a generous heart 🙂


      • Lonie Fulgham says:

        Happy birthday! I’ve been wondering when this next short story is going to come out. Looking forward to whenever that will be.


  2. Great post, and many thanks for the pingback.


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