Literature

A Short Analysis of Emily Dickinson’s ‘Tell all the Truth but tell it slant’

A reading of a classic Dickinson poem by Dr Oliver Tearle

‘Tell all the Truth but tell it slant’ is poem number 1129 in Emily Dickinson’s Complete Poems. It’s immediately recognisable as an Emily Dickinson poem: the use of the quatrain form, the characteristic dashes, the almost telegraphic style. But what does it mean to ‘tell all the Truth but tell it slant’? The short analysis below attempts an answer to this question. What is the meaning of this short and justly celebrated poem?

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant –
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind –

In summary, Dickinson says that we should tell the truth – the whole truth – but tell it indirectly, in a circuitous and round-the-houses fashion. The truth, she says, is too bright and dazzling for us to be able to cope with it in one go. We can be overwhelmed by it. The second stanza introduces the one simile of the poem: the way that lightning and thunderstorms are explained to children in kinder terms (‘eased’), so as not to frighten them. Dickinson concludes by saying that the truth, if shown too directly, has the power to blind us.

Emily DickinsonIn other words, we might analyse Dickinson’s poem as follows: she is arguing that we humans cannot handle too much truth, that we, to borrow T. S. Eliot’s words, cannot bear very much reality. We are imperfect creatures, and the truth is too pure and good for our ‘infirm’, or diseased and weak, ‘Delight’. Dickinson is writing before the phrase ‘being economical with the truth’ was coined, but her poem raises a similar question. Is this the same as flat-out lying? It would seem not, though the word ‘lies’, couched as so often in its potential double meaning (be supine/tell falsehoods), is there in the poem’s second line.

One of the most compelling readings of this poem was offered by another poet, Anthony Hecht (1923-2004). Hecht argued that ‘the Truth’ which Dickinson refers to might be interpreted specifically as religious truth (Jesus’ words ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life’ in John 14:6, for instance), and that we are not meant to understand the ‘Truth’ of God directly. This is why we need holy texts that address themselves to us in the form of riddles and symbols. What makes such an analysis of ‘Tell all the Truth but tell it slant’ persuasive is that Christianity is full of such references to being ‘blinded’ by the truth. For instance, there is 1 Corinthians 13:12: ‘For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face.’

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant –
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise

And certainly, as we can see in this opening stanza, Dickinson associates truth with light in this poem, suggesting that this truth carries the potential for enlightenment, whether religious, spiritual, or otherwise. Another of her poems begins, ‘There’s a certain Slant of light’; here, we have the truth being told ‘slant’, and then ‘Lightning’, suggesting a dazzling, bright light (the ‘Light’ of ‘Lightning’ coming to us via the ‘light’ peeping out from ‘delight’, which itself has emerged from a sliver of light present in ‘lies’).

Indeed, the repeated open ‘i’ sounds in the words Dickinson chooses to end her lines – ‘lies’, ‘Delight’, ‘surprise’, ‘kind’, ‘blind’ – call to mind the eyes and the importance of the visual, of seeing the truth. (Compare, in this connection, a much earlier poem, by the Elizabethan poet Sir Philip Sidney: Sidney also ends each of his lines with an i sound.) And the words ‘dazzle’ and ‘blind’ in that second stanza call to mind the idea of staring directly at the sun. Dickinson doesn’t mention the sun in this poem, but this may be what she is hinting at in the final two lines of the poem.

But for Helen Vendler, in her brilliant book of close readings, Dickinson, telling the truth aslant or ‘slant’ involves indirection rather than misdirection: Vendler connects Dickinson’s poem with Jesus’ use of the parable to put across his moral teachings. The moral ‘truth’ is thus communicated not through a direct message but via an oblique form, a story that represents something else. As Vendler puts it, ‘some truths must be told allegorically.’

But Dickinson’s motive for ‘slanting’ the truth is different from Jesus’: she doesn’t want to hide the truth from those who do not want to see it, but instead she wishes to make the truth more palatable to those who run the risk of being ‘blinded’ by it, as by the sun’s glare. As the famous line from the 1992 film A Few Good Men has it, ‘You can’t handle the truth!’ There are times in all of our lives when we would rather bury our heads in the sand and run away from harsh reality; making reality a little less harsh is the sermon Dickinson appears to be preaching here.

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind –

Just as very small children do not understand lightning and where it comes from, so parents soften this truth to them, so Dickinson seeks to soften the ‘lightning’ power of truth. Vendler’s summary of Dickinson’s poem is a compelling one, and it raises broader questions about poetry as parable. So often in Dickinson’s poetry – her celebrated poem about truth and beauty being but one example – she presents us with symbolic situations which attempt to illuminate some profound truth. But rather than addressing these issues directly, Dickinson cloaks them in metaphor, in unusual imagery, or in arrestingly original symbolism.

‘Tell all the Truth but tell it slant’ has a great opening line, and Emily Dickinson puts forward the ‘argument’ of the poem using powerful and memorable imagery. But ultimately what sort of ‘Truth’ she has in mind – if she does have a particular truth in mind here – remains unstated. And perhaps that is what gives the poem its power; when it comes to the truth the poem itself seeks to tell, it cannot help but ‘tell it slant’.

Continue to explore Dickinson’s poetry with this pick of her ten greatest poems, her beautiful poem about dying, and her enigmatic poem about a snake in the grass. If you want to own all of Dickinson’s wonderful poetry in a single volume, you can: we recommend the Faber edition of her Complete Poems. We’ve offered more tips for the close reading of poetry here.

The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.

Image: Black/white photograph of Emily Dickinson by William C. North (1846/7), Wikimedia Commons.

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