The Poem

Emily Dickinson’s poetic strategy is governed by her belief that truth must be approached indirectly in order to be understood most fully. In “The thought beneath so slight a film” (poem 210), for example, she insists that the “film,” or embodiment in a work of art, allows the idea to be “more distinctly seen,” and she uses two similes (lace revealing breasts and mists revealing the Alps) as examples. In “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant” (poem 1129), she explains more fully why “success in circuit lies”: “the Truth must dazzle gradually/ Or every man be blind.” Again she uses a simile, this time the way adults explain the phenomenon of lightning to children (in a metaphorical and “kind” manner), to express a truth figuratively which cannot be expressed literally.

“There’s a certain Slant of light” is the fullest and most complicated rendering of this idea; in it, she uses dramatic metaphors and similes not only to suggest her own literary methodology but also to express the dynamic interrelation she sees between people and nature. One of the interesting aspects of her first line (as in all her poems, used by editors as the title) is that it is the word “Slant” which is capitalized, and no other, not even “light,” though there are fourteen internal capitalizations in the poem. The focus is not on the light itself, but on the angle it takes at a particular time of day (late afternoon) during a particular...

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Forms and Devices

Dickinson is well known for her idiosyncratic use of capitalized words and dashes at the end of most lines, and both are used in abundance in this poem. The primary use of capitalized words within a line is for emphasis; it is Dickinson’s own way of indicating to the reader that one should pay especially close attention to a particular noun (nouns are capitalized much more often than any other part of speech). The dashes not only accentuate the rhythm of the poem, they also give the reader a sense of openness, extension, and ambiguity that is often less comfortable than the more traditional period. While not evident here, in other poems Dickinson commonly used exclamation points at the end of some lines for emphasis.

A more important and certainly much more influential device is that of slant rhyme (also called off rhyme, partial rhyme, or near rhyme). Slant rhyme (in which the final consonant sounds are the same but the vowel sounds are different) is frequently used when a poet wishes to negate, deny, or counter something, often a traditional value or idea. Here, for example, Dickinson uses slant rhyme in the first and third lines of each stanza (light/heft, us/difference, and listens/distance), and conventional exact rhyme to end the second and fourth lines (afternoons/tunes, scar/are, despair/air, and breath/death). Thus, what might have been a rather traditional poem of sixteen lines, divided into four quatrains rhyming abab, becomes a...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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