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Tell all the truth but tell it slant

February 20, 2014

Anna from Diary of an Eccentric asked (in the comments to my 6th blogoversary post) which one is my favorite Emily Dickinson poem. I named three, and even posted a video of me singing the first stanza of one of them.

The more I thought about the poems of Emily Dickinson, though, the more I realized that this one is actually the one I think about most:

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 —

Perhaps it’s because I love the story about how Zeus came to Semele as a presence and she conceived Dionysus but then Semele (tricked by Hera) demanded to see him as he really is, and he’d sworn he’d do what she asked, and so even though he knew that the sight of his full glory would kill her, he appeared before her in his true form.

Perhaps it’s because I like the way the image of truth as a circuit plays with the idea of circling around what we know in an attempt to find truth and also makes me picture the light bulb that comes on when an electric circuit is completed.

Perhaps it’s because I like how far the play on the word “lies” can be stretched—all the way from a feeling of success in truth-telling to the feeling that one has left something out or obscured some part and so the attempt has resulted in “lies.”

Perhaps it’s because whatever “ease” is provided by knowing why something scary happens and how it works is uneasy, and because at first glance it seems impossible to be dazzled “gradually.”

For these and other reasons, the first line of this poem is in my head a lot.

It’s ironic that I circled around three other poems before realizing that this one is, in fact, probably my very favorite one.

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23 Comments leave one →
  1. February 20, 2014 10:16 am

    I love this poem both for its recursive quality (A suggested title: “To the High Schoolers of the Future on Why You Think My Poems are Confusing”), and for the compassion and honesty that is in it. Emily is so good about not falling back on old saws or settling for comfortable answers. And the image of Lighting to the Children Eased is so evocatively sweet, that makes me want to hug all the Kindly Poets.

    • February 24, 2014 9:15 am

      Oh yes, it is fun to imagine the poem as self-referential. There’s something wonderful about the not settling for comfortable answers and yet not settling for making anyone too uncomfortable, either.

  2. February 20, 2014 10:27 am

    Funny, this “tell the truth but tell it slant” phrase comes up again and again in The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards which I just finished reading. If you haven’t read it yet, I think you’d like it.

    • February 24, 2014 9:10 am

      I haven’t read it yet. It sounds very…inbred? I shy away from too much writing by writers about writers. And yet I do like the idea that plagiarism is part of one modern form of writing.

  3. February 20, 2014 10:46 am

    It’s a good poem and gets referred to a lot in literature. That first line pops into my head quite a lot too. It’s a poem that really sticks with you!

    • February 24, 2014 9:16 am

      Perhaps hearing the first line in one’s head is a warning sign that a person is considering how to evade a truth she doesn’t want to tell.

  4. February 20, 2014 11:39 am

    OH I love this! Thank you. I like ALL of your explanations and I like the poem, too.

    • February 24, 2014 9:17 am

      Glad you like them all, because I don’t think any one is better than any other!

  5. February 20, 2014 12:13 pm

    My favourite is the one that begins ‘There is a certain slant of light’ but I don’t know all her work by any means and your post reminds me that I should read more poetry than I do.

    • February 24, 2014 9:19 am

      oh yes…winter afternoons…that’s such a good one for this time of year, but not my favorite by any means, since it’s about winter and how oppressive it can feel.

  6. February 20, 2014 1:25 pm

    This is one of my favorites, too. Just that “Tell the truth but tell is slant” line along give so much food for thought! Thanks for making a whole blog post out of my question. 🙂

    • February 24, 2014 9:20 am

      It was certainly my pleasure…it’s always fun to be asked which is your favorite of anything you like!

  7. February 20, 2014 9:41 pm

    I love this — like Care said, both the poem and your explanation. The first line is such a good one.

    • February 24, 2014 9:21 am

      Yes, not least for the implication that someone would think about shading the truth when they intend to tell all of it.

  8. February 20, 2014 10:44 pm

    I love the last two lines the best. We would all be blind.

    • February 24, 2014 9:23 am

      Since “dazzle gradually” is an oxymoron, then by extension, we are all blind, at least in some ways.

  9. February 21, 2014 12:39 am

    The poem is so flattering to writers – it is what so many hope or wish they were doing. How many really are, I will set aside.

    I say, tell lies but tell ’em straight.

    • February 24, 2014 9:25 am

      It’s kind of the same thing, isn’t it, telling lies (telling stories) but trying to tell the world as you see it?

  10. February 22, 2014 4:51 pm

    I know so little Emily Dickenson it’s woeful. This is a wonderful poem and I love the way you approach it. Circuitously. Staring at the sun doesn’t tell you what the sun does, after all; you have to look away from it to learn that.

    • February 24, 2014 9:26 am

      And to extend your metaphor, you have to circle around looking at the sun if you want to see anything afterwards. If you stare at it first, that will be the last thing you see.

  11. February 24, 2014 12:05 pm

    I like that first line very much (I’ve not read the poem before). It conveys a lot, both about what it’ll be about and just in general, in a good advice sort of way. Great poem, and I like the almost constant switch, in a way, between bold aspects/word and peace, if that makes sense.

    • February 24, 2014 12:22 pm

      That’s an interesting word to use about a poem by Emily Dickinson–peace. Outwardly she seemed so peaceful and composed much of the time, whereas inwardly she was seething with boldness and words.

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