‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant’ is quite short, but that only makes it all the more effective. Like the vast majority of Dickinson’s poems, this one was published after her death in 1886. It’s unclear what “truth” Dickinson was exploring in these lines. It could’ve been something universal, like a truth about the nature of life, God, death, etc., or something more personal. She might’ve been thinking about relationships, intimate or familial, writing, her future, or any other “truth” that one might uncover. The fact that she doesn’t define the “truth” helps as many different readers as possible approach this poem and understand it on their terms.
Explore Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
The poem begins with the speaker telling the reader that they must tell the full truth, but do so on a slant. One should not come directly at the truth, but rather enter into it in parts. This means that one might not see the full picture all at once. She goes on to state that this is a smart way to live as the full “Truth” is “Too bright for our infirm Delight.” Humankind is not strong enough to take in some of the most important truths of life. They would shock one into an even weaker state.
In the second half, she goes on to compare the paring down of truth to how lightning is explained to a scared child. When one takes some of the mystery away, or in the case of truth— information—then the impact is lessened. The final lines tell the reader that this must be done or all men will go blind. The shocks of the full truth will blind everyone from a full, comprehensive understanding.
There are a number of different theories about the particular “truth” Dickinson was thinking of when writing this piece. It might have been the truth of enlightenment, that of God, or something in between. The poem might also have been only addressing the nature of truth, rather than one specific element. Whatever Dickinson’s intention, the fact that she did not define a specific truth allows the poem to connect to a wider audience. Any reader can enter into their own interpretation without pushback from the text.
One of the most important images of this piece is light. It is intimately connected with the concept of truth and goodness and therefore problematic in the poem. It is often “Too bright” and appears as shocking, powerful “Lightening.” Light might be a good thing, just like the truth is, but too much of a good thing will “dazzle” an onlooker. Some may eventually become “blind.” This will result in the light being lost forever.
Structure and Form
‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant — ’ by Emily Dickinson is an eight-line poem that is separated into two sets of four lines, or quatrains. As was common within Dickinson’s poetry, this piece is structured in the form of a traditional church ballad. The lines alternate in meter between iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter. This means that the odd-numbered lines contain four sets of two beats, the first syllable of which is stressed and the second unstressed. The even-numbered lines contain one less beat, making them iambic trimeter.
The rhyme scheme also alternates. The second and fourth lines rhyme as do the sixth and eighth lines. The remaining pairs are slant or half-rhymes, such as that which exists between “slant” and “delight” These two words are connected due to consonance, or a similar sounding hard constant sound, ’T.’ On the other hand, there is the assonance or ‘E’ vowel sound between the fifth and seventh lines. This uncommon pattern of rhyme is impossible to ignore when considering the content of the text itself. The speaker is telling a reader that one should only tell partial truths, and to do so, she is using partial rhymes.
Dickinson makes use of several literary devices in ‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant — ‘. These include but are not limited to alliteration, enjambment, and hyperbole. The latter can be found in the last lines when Dickinson describes all men becoming “blind” when they uncover the truth. This is an exaggerated depiction of the striking nature of truth and what it can mean for one’s life. Alliteration and enjambment are formal devices that help the poet create a pattern of syllables, and a feeling of rhyme and rhythm even if there isn’t one. Alliteration is concerned with the use and reuse of words that begin with the same consonant sounds. For example, “Tell” and “Truth” in line one and “superb surprise” in line four.
Enjambment refers to the way that lines transition into one another. A line is enjambed with it does not make use of end-punctuation and a reader has to move to the next line in order to conclude a phrase or sentence. For example, the transition between lines two and three, as well as four and five.
Analysis of 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
Dickinson begins this piece with an instruction. She informs her listener that they must “Tell all the truth,” neglecting nothing. But do so “slant.” This would mean that the truth would be delivered indirectly, or perhaps in a slightly misleading way. The word “Truth” is capitalized in this first line, a common technique employed by Dickinson. There is no clear reason for her capitalization choices, but perhaps in this instance, “Truth” is capitalized to give the word more agency than it would normally have. It has a mental and emotional power that goes beyond that of another word. It is also the main character around which the eight lines are centered and the capitalization makes it even more important.
Rather than tell the truth in all its details, the speaker asks the reader to tell it in “Circuit.” One should jump around the truth, sharing bits and pieces of it without ever revealing the whole thing. She explains why this is the case in the next two lines.
It is due to the truth’s light that one must be careful with what they share. But, it is not the truth’s fault. Human delight is “infirm” or weak. It cannot handle every element of, whatever one determines to be referenced by, the “Truth.” When it does come, it arrives as a shock. It is a “superb” or perfect, overwhelming “surprise.” This might sound like a good thing, but as the speaker mentioned before “Delight” is not very strong. One must be careful about what they share.
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —
In the fifth line, the speaker uses a simile to compare “Lightning” that scares children to the truth shocking one’s system. When the lightning is explained to frightened kids they understand it. There is no longer the unruly speculation, taking one’s mind to strange and terrifying places. When one reveals the secret of the lightning, it’s just like telling the truth “slant.” They are softened in the same way.
The reference to children, and their innocence, or weakness, relates back to the description of “Delight” as “infirm.” Humans are like children when they face the full truth. Rather than hearing everything at once it makes more sense to take it in “gradually,” bit by bit.
This way it can “dazzle” in separate smaller parts. One can look upon truth and be dazzled without becoming fully blind. This is the warning the speaker leaves the reader within the last line. If one does not heed her warning then “every man” may become “blind.” It is likely Dickinson did not mean actual physical blindness. Rather she was speaking on an overwhelming emotional experience that blocks out everything else. One’s entire world could be altered by a specific truth.
The final line ends with one of Dickinson’s characteristic dashes. This makes it seem as if the poem is not yet over, it continues on somewhere in the distance as if there is more “Truth” to be shared.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant — ‘ should also look into reading some of Dickinson’s other most famous poems. These include ‘Hope is a thing with feathers,’ ‘I’m Nobody! Who are you?‘, and ‘The Soul selects her own Society’. The latter is a clever, short poem about selecting those who one wants to give access to their soul while the first is a light-hearted poem that uses a metaphor to compare a bird to an expression of hope. Other related poems include ‘The Truth the Dead Know’ by Anne Sexton about the death of the poet’s parents as well as ‘The House Was Quiet and The World Was Calm‘ by Wallace Stevens.