This poem begins by noting the oppressive sound of church bells heard in the bleak atmosphere of a winter afternoon. They give “Heavenly Hurt,” though they leave no external scar. Within six lines, Dickinson synthesizes a description of depression in terms of three senses: hearing, sight, and feeling.
This depression is, however, more than ordinary sadness. It comes from Heaven, and it bears the biblical“Seal Despair.” It hurts the entire landscape, its nonhuman as well as its human constituents, which listens, holds its breath for some revelation, yet perceives only the look of death. Significantly, the poet nowhere implies that no meaning exists; indeed, in other poems she is certain that a divine being exists and that there is a plan. Even so, the implications of what she writes are almost as devastating, for the apocalyptic seal of revelation holds fast, yielding no enlightenment to those below but the weak afternoon sun of a New England winter.
Read straightforwardly, the only means to combat this despair is, logically, faith, but in Dickinson’s landscape one senses only its external sign: the weighty tunes of a cathedral carillon. The “internal difference,” the scars of discouragement and despair remain within all, though visible to none.