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 Emily Dickinson's poem Tell all the Truth but tell it slant —


  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:

    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.



  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!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Do you have any comments, criticism, paraphrasis or analysis of this poem that you feel would assist other visitors in understanding the meaning or the theme of this poem by Emily Dickinson better? If accepted, your analysis will be added to this page of American Poems. Together we can build a wealth of information, but it will take some discipline and determination.