Bronwyn Valentine

Emily Dickinson and the Light in the Room


There is something furtive and unexpected about Emily Dickinson’s poems.  Reading her work is like stumbling onto a child’s lost treasure box, filled with wheat pennies and skeleton keys and galaxy-colored marbles.  One gets the sense that Dickinson’s poems were never meant to be read by mortal eyes.  It is a gift of the otherworld that we are allowed to look past the veil onto her words.  Dickinson herself could lift the veil between this world and the next, peer effortlessly at the grim and stoic face of Death, and never turn away from her own mirrored reflection.  This is why it is a joy to read the poetry of Emily Dickinson: we are given the chance to look over her shoulder at her secret world, thereby unlocking the gate to our own. 

Emily Dickinson asks a lot of her readers.  How can one fully understand spiritual sadness, or the search for some deeper meaning?  Poem #258 starts with “…a certain Slant of light” coming through the window from the winter-touched outside.  There is only one kind of light that is cold, and that is the light of winter.  Winter is the time of sleep and death, when the whole world turns inward and waits for renewal.  Even the light is affected; warmth is scarce, and certainly all living things hoard their warmth and guard it closely in winter.  If winter turns even the light cold, imagine what it could do to our still-warm and vulnerable hearts. 

Dickinson says that this light “oppresses, like the Heft / Of Cathedral Tunes –“.  The image of the church is significant to the poem.  The church is sacred; it is the temple to which we turn to sanctify ourselves and manifest our connection with divinity.  What happens when the temple is oppressive, when the vocal communion with God has weight we cannot bear?  It is interesting, too, how Dickinson links the properties of sound with the light coming in through the window.  Both are intangible, and yet she wants the reader to be able to feel them as we feel anything with the material distinction of weight.  She wants us to carry this light, and to feel the hymns as though they were strapped to our backs.

The weight of the light is painful; it is a “Heavenly Hurt”.  This is not the same pain we get from wounds of the flesh, but a spiritual pain in which the soul is marked.  Here, the soul is akin to the church in that it is the connection between humankind and divinity.  This is the place “where the Meanings are” that “none may teach” since it is the natural conduit between humankind and the Divine.  The soul holds the truest value for Dickinson.  If she can define herself as her soul, she might understand that intrinsic connection to the Divine.

What does the light signify?  The light is the soul itself, ever bent towards illuminating the deeper meaning of life and its purpose.  We can find the cause of sadness in this relationship between light and soul.  The light is fleeting, truly intangible in spite of its weight.  We cannot hold it.  It comes and goes.  Our grasp on the soul is transient, too, its intuition and intelligence just slightly out of our reach.  There is light, but no warmth.  We can see that it could bring us warmth if only we might reach it, but it lingers just outside the window, just beyond our hands.  Dickinson says that when the light comes, “…the Landscape listens – / Shadows – hold their breath –“, as though the slightest movement will scare it away, and we will be plunged again into darkness. 

And this fleeting understanding of the cosmos and our place within it does leave us.  It is “like the Distance / On the look of Death –“ when it goes.  That is to say, the deepest secrets of the soul are impenetrable and far outside the realm of human understanding.  We may look the soul square in the eye and still it would seem far away from us, unmoved by our search, and unwavering as we journey towards it, never to reach it.  The connection to the Divine is never fully realized, and this brings the greatest sadness we can know.

Emily Dickinson wrote poetry that delved deep into the fears and joys of the human heart.  It is her heart peering out at us from behind the veil, searching for recognition and acceptance.  If we ever recognize something of ourselves in her, it is a moment to be seized because we are that much closer to crossing the line between the worlds, of lifting the veil and truly seeing ourselves for the first time.