Tell all the truth but tell it slant by Emily Dickinson

‘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. 

 

Themes and Images

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. 

 

Summary of Tell all the truth but tell it slant

‘Tell all the truth but tell it slant’ by Emily Dickinson describes the power of truth and how it should be taken piecemeal rather than in one superb surprise. 

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 lightening 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 lessoned. 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. 

 

Related poetry:   My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun by Emily Dickinson

Analysis of Tell all the truth but tell it slant 

Lines 1-4 

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 centred and the capitalization makes it even more important. 

Rather that 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. 

 

Lines 5-8

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 lightening, 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 an 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. 

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