Not many poets and authors have the power to connect directly with the hearts of their readers’. One such poet with that power is Emily Dickinson. Her poetry flowed with beautiful words and conveyed the meaning so beautifully. Tell all the Truth but Tell it Slant is one such poem that can be enjoyed by everyone.
I’ll discuss the meaning of the poem, a short analysis and why it carries an important lesson that everyone should try to learn. I have attached a pdf version of Tell all the Truth but Tell it Slant along with its analysis for you to download. But before we look into this beautiful poem, let’s learn about the poet, Emily Dickinson, briefly.
Emily Dickinson short biography
Emily Dickinson was an American poet, born in Amherst, Massachusetts. As with all great artists, she was considered to be a little bit eccentric. Always garbed in whites, Dickinson preferred to stay in isolation and hardly received any friends. She also did not have many friends.
It is noteworthy that only 10 of her 1,800 poems were published when she was alive. Her poems were unusual for her time and they still are. But the unusualness isn’t bad, it gives her poem a unique style. Short lines, dashes, slant rhymes all make these poems Dickinson-esque.
Dickinson’s poetry is said to be influenced by the trauma that she had experienced in her younger days. Her first cousin died of typhoid and that left an impact on her. Dickinson was also influenced a lot by the writings of William Wordsworth and that can be seen in her poetry as well.
Before her death, Dickinson asked her sister to burn all her papers. She had no desire to publishing or letting others see her poems. But what a shame that would have been. The world would have been a less beautiful place.
Tell all the Truth but Tell it Slant
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 –
Meaning of Tell all the Truth but Tell it Slant poem
The general meaning of Tell all the Truth but Tell it Slant is about the power of truth and how it can turn into a destructive force, too difficult to handle. However, this isn’t the only meaning of the poem. People have pointed out some sub-meaning of the poems which I’ll be discussing.
The broader meaning is the one everyone agrees on. Dickinson says that telling the truth without dire repercussions is possible. It can be done by being indirect, by being “slant” in the delivery of the truth. The poem is written as musing rather than being definite. Dickinson speaks about the power of truth. She compares truth with a powerful weapon or phenomena and asks people to use it carefully.
She also mentions how the truth is too much for our weak delights. Here, delight is referred to as our superstitions, our sweet misconceptions, our false beliefs. While they are delightful to believe in, they are frail too. We are imperfect creatures and everyone has some form of lie that they believe in. And a little hit of the powerful truth can shatter it all. This is why the truth must come in a circuitous way and never direct.
Dickinson compares truth with lightning. This serves two purposes. First, truth is enlightening, it shed light on the darkness and similar to lighting, it is very bright. Lightning brightens up the dark sky, albeit for a moment. The second purpose is it shows the power and internality of lightning are similar to that of straight-forward truth. While it is enlightening, it will be destructive and blinding.
Humans with their infirm delights are like unaware children who are scared by lightning. Just like children need a kind explanation for the lightning to gradually make them understand what they are, humans need a similar, kind explanation. If this lightning of truth is struck in the eyes of humans, it will blind them. Hence, Dickinson advises that the light of truth must dazzle gradually.
Meaning of the Capitalization
A peculiar thing to note in this poem is the usual capitalization of some words. Words like Delight, Lightning, Children, Circuit and Truth are capitalized. While there is no confirmed meaning behind this, I think these words weren’t meant to hold more meaning.
The first word with the capitalization is Truth. This is fairly obvious to know that truth here means more. Truth can be anything that people either don’t know or they deliberately don’t want to believe. A choice of ignorance to spare the pain. This multifaceted truth is the reason for the stress on it.
Circuit is another word with such emphasis. Here too the word has a different meaning. The general meaning is the same; indirect, it is the approach that varies. How do you want to reveal the truth? How gradually do you want to disclose it? This is why we see the capitalization here.
Delight is also capitalized because as I mentioned earlier, delight refers to the disbeliefs and superstitions we feed ourselves to avoid the truth. It could be false hope, an impossible desire, or just rituals that make us happy. These delights are infirm or weak because they are all based on lies.
Children are a metaphorical representation of ignorant people. This ignorance is not deliberate, but still it is ignorance. The unawareness of the truth gives children the gift of happiness, but it must go one day. This is the same for people living in their false beliefs; Truth shall come to them one day, but it must come slant.
The literary devices of the poem
The dashes of the poem have an important purpose. They convey what the poet is trying to tell the readers. The poem starts with a piece of advice. Tell all the Truth but Tell it Slant and then follows a dash. This dash here refers to the reason why you should tell the truth slant and the poem then continues. The second dash which comes after the end of the poem tells the readers to ponder about it and to practice whatever the poet has asked them to.
Metaphors – First are the comparisons of truth with light. Just like light removes darkness and allows people to see, truth removes falsehood and lets people see from their inner eye, i.e., think.
Another metaphor used is in the last line, Or every man be blind – Here blindness does not mean actual blindness. Blindness means the inability to see or understand the truth. It is the refusal to believe the truth. Just like light helps people to see, too much light is also blinding.
The rhyming scheme used in Tell all the Truth but Tell it Slant isa-b-a-b-c-d-e-d. An instance of internal rhyming can be seen in this line: Too bright for our infirm Delight
Alliteration can be seen in three lines;
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant –
Success in Circuit lies
The Truth’s superb surprise
The line Infirm Delight is an oxymoron used in the poem. Infirm means weak, ill, debilitated and delight is joy and happiness. These two are contradictory and hence deliver impact.
The theme of the poem is about how truth must be conveyed to a society that lives in ignorance. Telling the truth directly would be like lightning, too bight and destructive. She says that this truth must shine, but gradually so that people can see it and not get blinded by it.
Does Dickinson mean Half-Truth
Many people think that what Dickinson means in this poem is telling half the truth. This idea is half-true. While in gradually telling the truth, you will arrive at half-truth, that is not where you must stop. That would be even more dangerous than the sweet lies people live with. The poem says to be indirect with people, not misdirect them.
Dickinson’s tone throughout the poem is very compassionate and caring. It is as if she is giving this advice from personal experience. She used words like kind, eased, gradual to show sympathy for the people who are unaware of the truth.
Dickinson never talks about the nature of the truth. She only focuses on how this truth must be revealed. She does not care what kind of light it is, she cares about how bright the light is. Blinding people means that if the truth is too hard to swallow or too controversial that it shakes the very foundation of people’s beliefs, it will make people ignore it. People will choose not to believe it since it is too much to take and this will make them never accept it. Hence, to avoid this, it must be revealed gradually.
The Deeper meaning of Tell all the Truth but Tell it Slant
Take a look at these words used in the poem; ‘Lies’, ‘Delight’, ‘surprise’, ‘kind’, ‘blind’. Notice how the sound of all these words is similar. It all has the common syllable of “i”. “I” here refers to the self as well as the eyes. Eyes help you see the light and the self, your consciousness is from which you see the truth. Just as truth and light are similar, eyes and “I”, the self, is similar.
Another sub-meaning of the poem is Dickinson’s indirect directing towards the false belief of religion. She was brought up as a catholic and had a very deep faith in God, but maybe because of the tragedies and isolation she went through, her thoughts on the idea of God changed? Maybe the truth of God not existing was the lightning she is referring to in the poem? Maybe this is why she wrote this poem with such sympathy, to avoid others from suffering the same fate as she did.
In conclusion, Tell all the Truth but Tell it Slant is a poem from which we can take practical advice. Written centuries ago, it always will stay true and helpful. It is not that “we can’t handle the truth”, it is more “we can’t handle the truth at once”. But the truth is inevitable. It is better to take it slowly than all at once.