Aaron M. Moe

Assistant Professor of English at Saint Mary's College, Notre Dame

“There’s a certain Slant of Light”: Dickinson and Newton in Stained Glass

This summer, I visited my brother who was finishing up his Ph.D. at the University of Pittsburgh. He took me to the Heinz Memorial Chapel, home to some of the tallest columns of stained-glass windows in the world. A pair of columns represents each of the following character traits: tolerance, courage, temperance, and truth.

Provocatively, the artist placed Emily Dickinson shoulder to shoulder with Sir Isaac Newton in the pair representing truth. Yes! Most people don’t realize that poetry is placed in the nonfiction section of the library. (But if you dig into “why,” you find out that it was more because they didn’t know what to do with poetry.) Nonetheless, Dickinson, in her title-less cosmos, tells all the truth but tells it slant (click here for image of original manuscript). And I love the fact that these columns suggest that Dickinson’s approach that keeps any certain “center” elusive in favor of circumference is just as worthy and necessary as a scientist who helped us understand gravity, planetary motion, tides, and more through an approach that privileges certainty.

The cosmos compelled both of these figures, and both help us glimpse more the truths of the cosmos (and the microcosmic) environing us.

And I love how the artist placed these figures in stained glass. There is something sacrosanct about their secular work. I am reminded of Denise Levertov’s “Some Notes on Organic Form.” She explores how contemplate shares the same root as temple, and she suggests that the stanza of a poem is a place for contemplation. Dickinson sees a “certain Slant of Light” to have the “Heft / Of Cathedral Tunes” (click here for image of original manuscript). I suggest that a stanza, then, can also have a certain slant of light that can generate a similar heft that is both sacrosanct and sublime. Likewise, stained-glass windows take a slant of light and transfigure it into image and story. A stanza and a frame of stained-glass window can usher us into contemplation.

These windows push us to linger in how much we know and don’t know (and will never know) about the cosmos on all scales, from the micro to the macro. These windows also usher us into contemplating the ways that science and poetry can share similar pursuits.

Needless to say, I will be sharing this post to students come Spring of 2016 when I teach a Major Author course dedicated to the work of Emily Dickinson.

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