Emily Dickinson’s Winter

There's a certain Slant of light,
Winter Afternoons –
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral Tunes –
Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson’s poetry was greatly inspired by science, nature, and the passing of the seasons. L. Edwin Folsom explains in “The Souls That Snow”, that Dickinson wrote about 500 poems about the seasons.  They were divided into about 400 poems about summer and spring, and about 100 about winter and autumn.  Folsom suggests “winter for Dickinson is the season that forces reality”, and that winter seemed linked to death and eternity.  This could be why these months didn’t receive much attention from her. Yet the poems she did write about winter convey a deep sense of reflection and contemplation.

Winter Light
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

The following poem, “There’s a Certain Slant of Light” is one where Dickinson highlights the connection between winter and death.

“There’s a certain Slant of Light” by Emily Dickinson

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 –

Dickinson, who lived in Amherst, Massachusetts, where the cold and snow of winter is a reality for at least 6 months out of the year, did accept winter as part of her identity.  In the following, slightly more upbeat poem, she states that she sees “New Englandly” and that winter is part of that vision

“The Robin’s my Criterion for Tune” by Emily Dickinson

The Robin's my Criterion for Tune—
Because I grow—where Robins do—
But, were I Cuckoo born—
I'd swear by him—
The ode familiar—rules the Noon—
The Buttercup's, my Whim for Bloom—
Because, we're Orchard sprung—
But, were I Britain born,
I'd Daisies spurn—
None but the Nut—October fit—
Because, through dropping it,
The Seasons flit—I'm taught—
Without the Snow's Tableau
Winter, were lie—to me—
Because I see—New Englandly—
The Queen, discerns like me—

To continue on this positive association of winter, Dickinson suggests that winter is good for transitions and supportive of individual growth.

Winter under cultivation
Is as arable as Spring

But even with these positive affiliations to winter, Dickinson still wants the reader to know so prefers the spring and summer.

“Winter is good — his Hoar Delights” by Emily Dickinson

Winter is good — his Hoar Delights
Italic flavor yield
To Intellects inebriate
With Summer, or the World —
Generic as a Quarry
And hearty — as a Rose —
Invited with Asperity
But welcome when he goes.

So it seems that Dickinson may have had a mixed relationship with the colder months. Whereas the spring and summer may have inspired an abundance of poetic expression, the hibernation of winter provided time for introspection and digestion of the past year’s events.  However, this time of contemplation should only last so long before it is time to welcome spring again.

I am fairly new to the study of Dickinson’s work but find her verse and imagery fascinating.  There is such a range from “Because I could not stop for Death” to “A Bird came down the Walk”, I can easily see why she has earned her place as one of the great American poets.

The Evergreens in Winter, Austin Dickinson's home
The Evergreens in winter-1870s; Retrieved from Emily Dickinson Museum


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16 thoughts on “Emily Dickinson’s Winter

Add yours

    1. Hi Ashley, I am new to Dickinson’s poetry. I feel like there is a lot to learn about her style. I also just learned that there was an Apple TV show on her life that was pretty popular. Who knew!?

  1. I, too, am a neophyte when it comes to Dickenson. In fact, the only poem of hers I can recall from my Masters of American Literature college class was “A Bird Came Down the Walk.” She has such a quirky style. She’s on my list of poets I need to investigate a bit more. Thanks for your research and the sharing of her work , Mark. It’s always good to explore other authors. And, of course, kudos to you on another fine essay. Keep ’em coming, good sir! 🙂

    1. Hi Mike, I am in the same boat as you. I need to learn more about Dickinson. I was just telling Ashley that there was an Apple TV show on her life. I bet if I watched that I would learn something. Thanks for the comment. Talk soon,

  2. – Mark, I ‘like’ your work on this one, but Dickinson not so much. It may well be due to the limitations of a non-native speaker of English and – I am more attracted to Rose Auslander’s style later in life – which may again show my ignorance of poetry.
    Not too long ago, I read someone describing Dickinson as an Aspergic/Autistic character who hardly left the house as she was getting overwhelmed. In that she has something in common perhaps with Rose A – who retreated into her bed for years as a pensioner without their being ‘any medical grounds for doing so’ as her biographer a Herr Braun, once stated in communication with me. I did not reply that there may be an existential need nonetheless…

    1. Hi Barbara, I am definitely learning about Dickinson. I will admit I don’t always follow her poems as there are references that I need to research to get the full meaning.
      I don’t know Rose’s work but I am interested. She is now added to the list of people and poems to research!
      Thank you for adding to this conversation. I appreciate your to thoughts.

      1. thanks Mark. I’ll be interested to hear what you find out about Rose Auslander. I don’t know that much about her. She lived and worked in the US for 2 long periods of her life. I remember reading that a US poet quietly is said to have advised her to keep writing in German. only one of 8 0r volumes of the collected works is in English, As far as I am aware, only 1 of 8 or 9 volumes is in English – but there may be more material in the US,not included in the CW? in any case, I’ll be looking forward to what you find out about her.

    1. Hi Louisa, thank you for the comment and support. I was inspired by some of your your focused posts to dive a little deeper into one poet’s work. Glad that you enjoyed it.

  3. I was drawn to this post by the image. I love everything about it and have made some mental notes for future artwork. Then as a side note, haha, beautiful poetry. A wonderful way of painting a picture with words. Thank for sharing your thoughts on this.

  4. Hi Sandra, Love it! I truly like that you were drawn to the post because of the photo. And I am also glad that you liked the words. I’ll keep an eye out for winter inspired art on your site. Be well!

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