There's a certain slant of light,I'm not a poetical analyst, and I don't think I'd ever like to be, but I will talk a bit about why I like this poem in particular. In the first stanza, she gives light a sense of weight, or oppression. But not any kind of physical weight, as light is virtually weightless, but a moody weight, "the weight of cathedral tunes". I imagine an overpowering pipe-organ ringing through a large hall of a cathedral. It's interesting how she finds it oppressing, but comparing it to the "slant of light" appearing on wintery afternoons through its "weight", there is no question that this is a moody weight, a heaviness: melancholy, although I've never heard melancholy described more beautifully than here. It's currently winter where I am right now, so I know exactly what she's talking about insofar as imagery, but the melancholy is something much more universal that applies to any time of the year.
On winter afternoons,
That oppresses, like the weight
Of cathedral tunes.
Heavenly hurt it gives us;
We can find no scar,
But internal difference
Where the meanings are.
None may teach it anything,
'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.
The first stanza sets the topic for the rest of the poem, from there the pronoun "it" comes down like a hammer, encapsulating the entire concept of the first four lines. This is one of the most beautiful mysteries of language and the mind, the way we can describe an entire experience, bearing all its narratives and moods, and surface it all simply through the word "it". In Japanese, they don't even have a word for "it", but rather a "zero-pronoun", where it's not even said at all.
It's fascinating. Perhaps the reverse is how creativity works. We start with the word "it", and all the experiences that it surfaces, and from there we lay it out into a form.
Another effect of "it" is when you take one of the stanza's out of context. Take the last stanza for instance (already odd, as it changes up the number of syllables), and "it" suddenly takes on a much larger meaning: hope, love, life, God?
I love the way she rhymes "breath" and "death", as if she encompasses an entire scope of life in one swoop. Considering, when you put the stanza back into context, that she is referring to a slant of light "on winter afternoons". In poetic terms, that's like saying "you have about two minutes left to live". Although, I always found it fatuous to think of seasons and days to only represent the cycle of life. Children still experience winter at least once a year, and the elderly can still experience spring and summer. I like to think of it as a link, that any point in your life you experience the melancholy of a winter afternoon, it is a similar feeling to your (poetic) winter afternoon.
I like her personification of landscapes and shadows. Perhaps it's a bit horrifying to think of shadows breathing, but looking closely, it's not what she's saying, it's only implied by our imagination. The shadows holding their breath, combined with listening landscapes, describes a suspended feeling, a stillness or anticipation, but for what? And the way the poem ends on the word "death" is almost like a knife jabbing into your heart, softened only by the fact it belongs to a simile.
But perhaps it's not all so glum. After all, a cathedral tune might be oppressive, but is it so gloomy? She describes it giving us "Heavenly hurt", is this some kind of masochism? Perhaps it's more about a transcendent feeling, finding resolution from an internal struggle, a mixture of contradicting emotions within oneself. Accepting death, but finding it beautiful.
And finally, the surrender. The solution is that there is no solution. We can not tell nature what to do, it is our master and we are its subjects. Obedience and loyalty is the key to eternal harmony.
That is until we're able to build weather machines.