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BlogJanuary-February, 2010
Emily Dickinson & The Left Hand of Darkness

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 –


Who is the speaker in this Emily Dickinson poem? Sometimes I imagine her as a bored churchgoer. She looks up from her prayer book and notices this depressing winter light slanting through the stained-glass windows.

Other times I envision her as a solitary spinster. Bundled on the back porch, she takes comfort in a familiar vista. But then the angle of sunlight changes just so – bringing with it a devastating dose of free-floating (but edifying) melancholy.

Regardless of her setting, it is reasonable to conclude she is still. When one is in motion, the winter light – its angle, its brightness, its “heft” – fluctuates with the observer’s shifting perspective. The actual slant of the light keeps changing. There’s nothing “certain” about it.

I thought of this recently while reading passages – and poetry – from Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness:

Light is the left hand of darkness

and darkness the right hand of light.

Two are one, life and death, lying

together like lovers in kemmer,

like hands joined together,

like the end and the way.

The congruency between “hand of light” and “slant of light” invites a comparison. As does Genly Ai’s midwinter musing on the meaning of an “internal difference” in Chapter 18:

“I am not trying to say that I was happy, during those weeks of hauling a sledge across an ice-sheet in the dead of winter. I was hungry, overstrained, and often anxious, and it all got worse the longer it went on. I certainly wasn’t happy. Happiness has to do with reason, and only reason earns it. What I was given was the thing you can’t earn, and can’t keep, and often don’t even recognize at the time; I mean joy” (242).

Despite fifty days of traveling in subzero conditions, not once does Ai or his traveling companion Estraven confess to Dickinsonian despair. In fact, to judge by the above passage, the opposite takes place: joy. Is it farfetched – and too extra-textual – to attribute their joy to exertion while linking the “heavenly hurt” of Dickinson’s observer to her stasis? Maybe – but that’s my theory. In Ai’s view, the winter light is not something “that oppresses.” Instead, “the long light of early day lay wonderfully gold and blue across the miles of ice” (243).

Of course, this is the light of early day, not afternoon. But when afternoon arrives, Ai and Estraven are too busy surviving the cold to study the light – let alone record how it makes them feel: “Around midday we would halt, and cut and set up a few blocks of ice for a protective wall if the wind was strong. We heated water to soak a cube of gichy-michy in, and drank the water hot, sometimes with a bit of sugar melted in it; harnessed up again and went on” (244).

This brings me to a final fact about Dickinson's observer. Not once does she lament the elements. Cold, snow, wind, and ice are conspicuously absent from her poem. It makes you wonder if her "heavenly hurt" would have appeared if - instead of sitting still - she'd been in scarf, gloves, and boots, sledding or slipping, skiing or shoveling. 

Ilan Mochari's fiction has been published in Keyhole and honored by
Glimmer Train. In 2009, he received a Literature Artist Fellowship grant from the Somerville Arts Council, a local agency supported by the Massachusetts Cultural Council. He is a former staff writer for Inc, and he has also written for Fortune Small Business and CFO. He has a B.A. in English from Yale University.

    © 2008 Ilan Mochari  
Ilan Mochari