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 —

Analysis, meaning and summary of the poem by

31 Comments

  1. Bonnie Bercegeay says:

    the word *lies* is used as a verb in this line, not as the noun *lies* (meaning an untruth). Because this is poetry she takes the liberty of re-ordering normal English syntax in order to rhyme with surprise. So this line really says “Success lies in Circuit” where circuit is referring to the roundabout way one should proceed to be successful in conveying truth to others. Regarding the capitalization, main nouns were frequently capitalized back then.

  2. Brendan Payne says:

    Elizabeth’s reading (#31, 32) is right on, except line 3, where she writes “inform” instead of “infirm”.

    My reading: The whole poem is using several analogies to explain that the whole Truth is best told “slant,” or indirectly. First, the circuit (or lap) of a racetrack: Truth is successfully explained by several partially revealing truths, or “lies”; only after several incremental attempts is the Truth understood. Like a teacher explaining a difficult idea, it takes several times, and is often best explained indirectly.
    Second, light: the Truth is “bright,” “superb,” “like lightening,” and can “dazzle.” Because we humans have “infirm Delight,” we are incapable of understanding all the Truth at once; we are like children who cannot be told directly what lightening is but must have the Truth “eased” to us with “explanation kind.” You don’t tell a 3-year old everything about static electricity; you give her a partial, incomplete explanation, and hope to explain it better when she is more mature.

    As for what Truth means, this applies generally to understanding the whole truth about many things, as Mr. Ramzo noted. Yet the poem strongly suggests she is particularly talking about God, for two reasons. First, the last 4 lines compare an adult explaining lighting to “the Children” to Truth revealing itself to “every man”. To put it simply, adult is to children as Truth is to mankind. Put that way, Truth sounds an awful lot like God.
    Second, she is referencing the Bible in three ways: direct quote, the analogy of light, and the idea of telling the truth slant. The analogy of light is used in opening of the book of John (1:9) to explain God’s self-revelation in Jesus, “the true Light, which lighteth EVERY MAN that cometh into the world” [emphasis mine]. The quote is from the King James Bible, the only English version used in the 1800’s, and shares the poem’s exact language: “every man.” Also, the main idea in the book of John is that Jesus reveals the Truth, but indirectly: he reveals God’s glory not with terrifying power, but with humble love; he talks about the Kingdom of Heaven not directly, but by parables; he sets up the Kingdom not by killing his enemies, but by letting his enemies kill him. In short, Jesus is the ultimate example of telling all the Truth, but telling it slant, the Truth’s superb surprise. The theme of blindness is also all over John.. but I must stop there.

    That’s was a long post, but I hope you find it useful. btw, the fact that it takes this much time to unpack just a small piece of a short, 8-line poem shows that Dickinson was a master, and underscores the value of poetry if we take the time to think on it.

  3. Mr, Razmo says:

    In my experience, people have different ways that they regard Truth. To some, truth is a delicate flower which must be treated delicately and is entirely enjoyable for its beauty. To some, truth is like treasure which is to kept hidden, shown only to very few, select persons and only at rare moments. To some, truth is a club to be wielded as a weapon to beat others with. I believe that Emily Dickinson was speaking directly to this view of how to handle Truth. She is telling the reader that just as righteousness without mercy is corrupt and tyrannical, Truth is to be handled with love and kindness and regard for the person or people who are the listener(s).
    I work right now with a person who is very proud of how blunt he is, and he is absolutely committed to facing the Truth on all occasions and letting the chips fall where they may. While I understand his point of view, he doesn’t have any co-workers who care to be around him! Well, I showed him this poem because I want him to know that it is rarely necessary to be “blunt” in order to make your point, it is better to consider how the other person may hear what you say. It is written, sometimes the lesson taught is not the lesson learned!

  4. Anonymous says:

    Sango and others, Please take another look at this poem. I dont think that what Emily is saying is that God is not real. In fact i am not sure she is talking about God at all. But if she were refering to God as Truth I think what she is saying is that He can be overwhemlming at times. I know when i think about God i am overwhelmed by God’s holiness because of the sin in my life. I think its this sensation that Emily could be talking about in the poem. Please consider the posibility that there is God, because i know there is,and he is a loving and just one, and what are the consequences of believing there is no God if their really is?

  5. Anežka says:

    Hi,
    please couldn’t anybody help me with the suggested meaning of the truths Dickinson is writing about? Could those be religious truths? Or generelly?
    P.S. We have to write an interpretation as a homework for school.

  6. NAHSON KABUYAYA says:

    HOW CAN ONE SUPPORT THE IDEA ABOUT THE POEM INTERPRETATION AS GIVEN ABOVE?

  7. Katie says:

    “Tell the Truth but Tell it Slant”

    Poetry can be perceived in many ways, this is my interpretation:

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

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

    In the first line of the poem the letter “T” is alliterated in the words “tell” “truth” “tell” to emphasize that telling the truth is important. Dickinson then argues of the way in which the truth should be told. Dickinson states ” Success in Circuit Lies”, here she alliterates “Success” “Circuit” Using the soft sound of the letter “s”. Thus only in the first stanza she explains that the truth should be told, but cautiously. She explains that many times we think we want to know the truth to our “delight” but we are “infirm” , thus, being told the truth leads to making us even more weak. We should avoid telling the truth as a “superb surprise”.

    In the Second Stanza,Dickinson deliberates on this explanation about telling the truth. She explains that truth must be told as it is told to the children and how it is explained to them. She uses “lightning” as an example.( A mother would not tell her scared child to beware of lightning because it would kill him. Saying so would shock or “blind” him with the knowledge of the truth. Instead of shocking him she would instead care of him and tell him as long as they were under their house they would be safe.) She uses “kind” explanations. The truth must be told gradually, and the mother could eventually teach her child of the true harm lightning can cause, but “Truth must dazzle gradually”.

    Most importantly Dickinson explains that the teller of the truth must be careful and gentle in the way he/she tells the truth. The teller is responsible for her audience.

  8. Sara says:

    For of all I don’t see how this poem can be about God. I believe that it is about depression that weighs down your body. As the weather changes so does your mood. The lines “We can find no scar,/But internal differences-“, made me think that the speaker of the people was depressed and no one could see these scars inside of her/him.

  9. Not a Moron says:

    A couple of things: First, even though “truth” is capitalized at all points throughout, it’s a reference to the Platonic idea of truth as a static concept. Plato thought, contrary to the pre-Modern philosophers, that there existed a world of ideas and that everything we see is an imperfect replication of that idea. Plato thought that these imperfections, although real, were less important than the world of ideas, which due to their ideal nature, were perfect. See also the Allegory of the Cave and Plato’s belief in a single static truth from which there may be different perceptual realities yet only one real truth.

    Second, although the post about Dickinson’s personal life is thoughtful as to the subtext, it does not necessarily follow that Dickinson was writing about what may or may not have been her personal experiences and beliefs concerning the existence of a supreme being. What is just as likely is the alternative explanation most people adopt after reading the text.

    Since “Truth” is capitalized, and because the stanza concludes as it does, I think it could just as easily be talking about the sudden knee-jerk reaction most feel when confronted by something to which they do not agree. The line “The Truth must dazzle gradually” is, I believe, a statement about the nature of confrontation. That which we learn to accept over time is much easier to swallow than a whole suddenly presented to us without warning.

    Third, every post thus far has ignored the second line of the poem. “Success in Circuit lies.” When the poem was authored in in the latter half of the 19th Century, the judicial departments were divided into Circuits. Like “Truth,” I believe this word is capitalized for a reason- it references the legal jurisdictional entities prevalent in her day. As her father was a lawyer and public official, it is not unlikely that Emily was exposed to the law at some level and was thus aware of the practice of “slant”ing facts in legal argument in order to be “success”ful before the “Circuit” court.

    Thus, although the religious reading may be one valid way of reading the text and understanding her biography, I believe the more likely result of such a study produces a permutation of general and legal advice.

  10. Rachel says:

    Carson, no offense but you’re an idiot. The person who said “God is probably not real” was saying it in reference to the poem, not about himself. And even if he was saying it about himself, you shouldn’t tell people who don’t believe in God to “go to church! read the bible!” Seriously, it’s rude. People have different beliefs than you do – get over it!

    In fact I’m not convinced that this poem was about God. I think that’s stretching it a little. I dunno I’ll look into it further

  11. Carson says:

    Just to say something about that comment about that “God is probably not real” you need to go to church. He is so real! READ THE BIBLE!

  12. kayla says:

    Tell me how does this poem have any thing to do with religion. I don’t see the connection….

  13. Jerry Garcia says:

    does anybody else think that reading emily dickinson in school is a complete waste of time

  14. Sango says:

    At first I literally thought that Ms. Dickinson about truth. But after redaing it I see that it is partially about God and that he’s probably not real. The first thing I noticed about the poem is that she capitalized truth every time she wrote it. I have to thank my english teacher for making me read this.

  15. Angry Bob says:

    I read this poem in mr. Kruclis class and i thought it was fun

  16. ncase says:

    I’ve heard the first line of this poem quoted a lot as an explanation of storytelling: that it is more powerful to tell a story where the “deep truth” you are trying to tell appears out of the corner of the reader’s eye, rather than banging the reader over the head with it. In its original context, the line is at least as much about religious truth being taught straightforwardly vs. by example (via parables, for instance). But the point remains the same: whether we are literally made blind by Truth thundering down at us, or are “blinded” momentarily by blunt-nosed moralizing, we can more easily absorb truths and allow them to change us if we take them in sideways.

  17. Huggermugger says:

    To say that Dickinson was not brilliant is to understand nothing of poetry. What we have here is pure excellence, not one word too many, not one there without reason.

    Everything in this poem does make perfect sense but only – and this is the crucial point – if interpreted correctly.

    True, on the surface this poem may discuss truth and that we often try to avoid it because it can be unpleasant.

    Yet poetry is intimate. There is no understanding of great poets without understanding their character, at least to some degree.
    For Dickinson, in order to realize her brilliance, one has to become her.

    Now here is my interpretation of the slant truth and I want to give you my reasons why I believe it is the correct one and why then her carefully chosen words do make perfect sense:

    A) Dickinson was raised, kind of against her will, to believe in Christianity. However, when old enough, she abandoned her belief altogether.
    B) Note how the truth does not have a connotation of good or bad. That opposes the notion that Dickinson is talking about truth in general. Why should a truth that is described as “too bright for our infirm delight” be a negative one and if it isn’t negative why should we not welcome it?
    Well, I believe she is talking about religious truth, God, Jesus, their existance so to speak.

    C) Her choice of words confirm my previous asumption. God and his message are “bright”, so is Jesus, his radiant image. Then there is the reference to being blinded. Well, those of you who are familiar with the bible might remember the healing of the blind man: “I was blind, now I can see”.

    What brilliant sarcasm lies hidden in Dickinson’s lines: What if men would finally see that God and Christianity was a farce? (“The Truth’s superb surprise”).
    What if they had been blind and learned it all of the sudden? They would be without divine guidance and like “blind man”. Hence this recognition has to occur gradually:
    “The Truth must dazzle gradually
    Or every man be blind — ”

    Like in the case of the children who learn that lightning is not caused by an irate God up in heaven but is as a matter of fact a scientific phenomenon:
    “As Lightning to the Children eased
    With explanation kind”

    And for those who believe falsely that because Dickinson was depressive she was unable to do what she did, I urge you to check out scientific articles on the correlation of psychological illnesses and intellectual genius.
    Einstein, my friend, was not normal. Had he been, he would have not done what he did. Neither would have many other scientists and artists.

  18. Tifany Night says:

    This is a really good poem

  19. Katie says:

    Never be 100% forthcoming with the truth, always vere around it. Why? b/c the truth is often something that takes us by suprise, that we are unprepared for and often not willing to deal with. Like a parent who rather tell a child that the angels are bowling in heaven rather than explain what lightning really is, b/c it neither comforts nor consoles a scared child during a thunderstorm, instead offer a kind explanation that will put their mind at ease. Unfortuantely the truth often times has to be appealing enough to actually be told, it has to “dazzle” in order to be acceptable. Even still, what kind of truth is that? Or every man be blind…so she says. I have to wonder if Ms. Dickinson isn’t revealing to us the truth in her own round about way.

  20. Yasmine Raslan says:

    Everyone wants to know everything and all the truths. But not everyone can handle all truth. Sometimes it’s best to not know than to know anything.

  21. Mr. X says:

    Emily Dickinson was definately not briliant. She spent her life in seclusion merely writing about her estranged life. Just because she is cryptic(Who wouldn’t be living in seclusion?) doesn’t mean she is brilliant. Her poems often speak of death and other morbid thoughts. SHe obviously was tangled up in waves of manic depression. If Emily Dickinson is considered brilliant, our society has truly decayed to unsafe levels.

  22. Shelly says:

    I think her poetry is brillant!! She is one in a million her poems are always baaised upon Truth in some shape or form.

  23. Eric says:

    After reading all the other comments, I’m afraid that mine will seem a bit, well, pedestrian. I’ve discovered that this poem can easily be converted into an Irish country song. There, I’ve said it.

  24. Anna says:

    The first thing I thought of after reading this poem was Plato’s “The Allegory of the Cave,” in which he describes ignorant people as living in a dark cave, and the process of coming out to the sunlight is a gradual one. For Plato, those able to look at the sun were the philosopher kings. Both Plato (Socrates) and Dickinson recognize the necessary time it takes to come to a full understanding of the truth. I wonder if Dickenson was directly referring to the “Allegory of the Cave.” The line “The truth must dazzle gradually/ Or every man be blind” seems so similar to Plato.

  25. CJ says:

    Emily Dickenson, though very much anti-social had a great understanding of human behavior and way of life. Her poem “1129” has an odd and informal tone, almost like a pastor preaching his Sunday morning sermon. The central theme “truth” can be viewed as the existence of genuine deeds. I think to Emily there were none. The first line means to attempt to tell all the truth but as a steady progression. Telling the truth in kinds of increments allows people to learn from experience and slowly achieve knowledge needed to be efficient and successful in life. Personally, I think this applies to child development, the forming of friendships, and the interaction with professional relationships.
    As a child, parents try to protect their child’s innocence for as long as possible. However, growing into adolescence is a long process that allows things to set and settle in a child’s mind. Take for instance death and sex; parents always try to sugar coat issues that they think a child wouldn’t comprehend. The child’s curiosity often catches their parents off guard and is just introduced to the subject matter. When dealing with death, parents frequently use that their Grammy and Pappy are sleeping, or the use the phase of a “long vacation.” When it comes to sex, parents often use the story of the stork; how it brought children from a factory in heaven and dropped the kids off at the doorstep. As Dickenson wrote, “The truth’s superb surprise…As Lighting to the Children eased.”
    Next, Friendships are based on trust, honesty and dependability. Healthy friendships allow people to reach a comfort level and gain confidence in themselves. But there is a stage that people go through during elementary school up to high school and even sometimes for the rest of there life. They tend to befriend people for either an authentic friendship or their own personal benefits. It’s very rare that people don’t have an alterative motive. An important aspect in growing up is how we deal with intimacy. Intimacy has a myriad of emotions. Often time people use cause and effect to make someone feel significant; it raises their level of self esteem. But, living a life in disguise, living untrue to yourself just to fulfill a social status or simply fit in doesn’t allow you to live a gratifying life.

  26. Oalf says:

    If you anylize this poem after reading biographical information about Dickenson, it seem obvious that she is using Tuth in a religious sense (sepecially Christianity. She is saying that the reason preachers tell the truth sideways is because the real truth would blind, or perhaps that is sarcastic and she means the real truth would open the eyes of the congregation. Read more of her poems and you’ll discover her sarcasm toward religion.

  27. Alex says:

    It is impossible to tell the entire truth while avoiding directly stating what the truth itself is… or so one would think. But Emily Dickinson crosses this seemingly paradoxical statement with her poem “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant –.” From the poem’s first line, the same as the title, she begins to draw the reader into the concept of telling the truth in a roundabout way, and by the end of the poem, her words themselves are convincing enough to make one believe each and every carefully-chosen syllable. However, not only does the poem say to circuitously tell the truth, but the poem itself follows its own preaching, and in a roundabout, but coherent manner, reveals the truth it’s been aiming towards all along.
    The first line, “tell all the Truth but tell it slant –,” essentially draws the reader towards the subject matter (1); and with that line, Emily Dickinson carefully declares what she wants her poem to say. However, with the potential ambiguity of the word “slant,” for it could mean skewed, never to reach the object, or roundabout, carefully skirting the edge until you’ve reached the object, or something completely different to countless other individual readers. Her first line is an exercise in itself, and is a synecdochic example of its own truth.
    Continuing with her slanted truth, Dickinson then begins to specify her point by focusing the tactics of slanting the truth to those of “circuit,” or simply by taking a circuitous route. She then guardedly gives a reason for the indirect route, in that the “superb surprise” of the truth is “too bright for our infirm Delight,” or simply that we are incapable of taking the entire truth as a surprise (4, 3).
    Then, as a way of tying everything together, she introduces the image of lightning, and likens her own point to that of describing lightning to children. But the likeness of the methods isn’t the most important part of her juxtaposition, it is the idea of blindness and brightness that ties the poem into a coherent piece. For her final, blatant statement of the truth, the end of her slanted way of approaching it, reads thus: “The truth must dazzle gradually / Or every man be blind –” (9-10). The blindness caused by the instant revelation of the truth is akin to the brightness of truth’s superb surprise, all of which are held together by the image of a bright flash of lightning. This final revelation is analogous to the termination of the circuitous route to truth-telling.
    This comprehension achieved at the end of Dickinson’s poem proves itself, for the simple fact that the reader reaches that conclusion without fully understanding it, or simply dismissing it, proves the conclusion they reached to be true. For the fact that Dickinson’s circuitous route caused the truth that a circuitous route is necessary to truth-telling proves the effectiveness of the circuitous route. The simple difficulty of understanding that idea displays Emily Dickinson’s successful use of word choice and structure, in that she encompassed her complex idea in simply eight lines.

  28. joy says:

    at first i thought this poem is very weird. however, after reading several times, i believe that this poem is talking about that truth does not always cause delight because it is revealed. The lies that were covered by not telling the truth can cause displeasure.People either have to be blinded by lies, or know the truth.

  29. Chelsie says:

    I think Dickinson is saying that the truth needs to be told gradually with a calm, mild attitude. The poem refletcs her love life..with all the men she loved. These men abrubtly told her that they did not love her–this scared her. Too much truth at one time is a scary thing. In this poem, there are many contradictions..this may come from her confusion.

  30. Anonymous says:

    When i was first asked to comment this poem i also thought that the idea was pretty simple, i never thought i didn’t think i might need other information about the poem or the poet, but when i read a bit more attentively i noticed a certain doze of sarcasm…i don’t know, that was how it seemed to me, perhaps she doesn’t belive in people telling the truth…be it abrupt or slant…i guess it could be interpreted as a non-belief
    I’m sorry for my grammar mistakes…but i’m a foreigner

  31. Jennifer says:

    What are you talking about? This is a good poem. Haven’t you ever had someone lie to you? Haven’t you ever felt that you learned too much of the truth at one time and were just overwhelmed by it? That’s what the poem is about!!! It’s about telling the truth but yet picking the moment to tell the truth and not overwhelming everyone by telling them all of it at once.
    In real life, you can see how people we consider ‘successful’ have had to lie at least a little to get up to the top. It’s a good poem and I think that it applies very well to the world today.

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