Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Dickinson as poet is committed to an aesthetic point of view shared in large part by other American Romantics such as Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville. She speaks for the indirect vision in art and literature, one that resists the reduction of truth to any logical definition or comprehensive statement. As with Hawthorne’s idea of the “neutral territory” where the actual and the imaginary meet, Thoreau’s search for “the hound, the bay horse, and the turtle dove,” and Melville’s (and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s and Walt Whitman’s, for that matter) sense of objects as “pasteboard masks,” Dickinson’s assertion is that only the use of metaphorical rather than direct language will allow the writer, and thus the reader, to “pierce the veil” of the material world and gain some sense of the spiritual reality which is behind it.

Another major theme in her poetry as a whole is reflected in this poem: the idea that people are deeply wedded to the physical world. For Dickinson, the landscape has the power to affect a person deeply and permanently; for example, external weather may cause changes in one’s “internal weather.” What is more (and here she differs sharply from Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman), these changes may not always be pleasant or positive ones. In this poem, for example, the speaker has been hurt and oppressed enough by this slant of light so as to feel despair. She experiences the fading of the light much as she experiences that sense of isolation, estrangement, and separation that comes with seeing death.

These two ideas come together as a paradox: How can one resolve the tension between appreciating and transcending the physical world? Dickinson seems to be suggesting in many of her poems that first one must come to a full appreciation of the physical world; then one may be able to push through and beyond it to where the meaning lies.

In this, one of the very finest of her poems, Emily Dickinson has created a metaphor in which feeling and abstraction are fused. It is a metaphor that vividly expresses what for her was the spiritual fact that seasonal changes in the external world often parallel spiritual changes in the internal world. These changes may be negative as well as positive; they may bring despair as well as hope.