Emily Dickinson – Tell All The Truth (#1263)

(NB: This is the first of what will be a series of articles exploring works of literature. Of course there’s no better one to start with than the poem this blog is named after.)


What I’ve always liked most about Emily Dickinson is that, while she wrote often about the same subjects (i.e. death), she always approached them from different angles and points of view. She was an explorer of the human soul and how it interacted with the world. I don’t know what she was looking for in her explorations. Her poetry gives no clues of a final arrival. But through her work, you’ll find endless nooks and crannies, and you’ll never be bored. Through various and idiosyncratic forms, syntax, rhythms, rhymes, she defied categorization. Her poems refuse to be pinned down. Even her more straightforward poems prove to be deceptively simple. And one of the best examples is poem #1263, often entitled Tell all the truth but tell it slant.

#1263
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 —

Let’s dive in for a more detailed look.

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —

The poem begins with a simple call to action, namely, to tell the truth but to tell it slant. An interesting word there, slant, but still pretty easy to understand. Instead of telling the truth in a direct, blunt fashion, we should tell it at an angle.

Success in Circuit lies

The second line provides a rationale for this indirect method of truth telling — it will be more successful, or the truth will be more readily accepted.

Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise

The next two lines explain why an indirectly told truth is more readily accepted. Rewritten from the inverted sentence structure, we have, “The Truth’s superb surprise is too bright for our infirm delight.” An indirect method of telling the truth will be more successful because it softens the blow of truths that can be too intense (too bright). Think of the phrase “hard truths”.

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

Again reordering the inverted sentence structure we get (with some paraphrasing): “The truth must dazzle gradually, the way a kind explanation of lightning puts children at ease, or we all will be blind —“. The metaphor of lightning for truth allows us to better conceptualize its shocking nature. The last two lines emphasize that we must face the dazzling truth in bits and pieces (gradually) to avoid blindness of the truth.

Pretty straightforward, right? Really, there’s nothing exciting here. Some simple truisms that we can all nod our heads at and say, “Yep, sounds right,” then head to work without thinking about it again. But like many of the rhymes in much of Emily’s other work, something is off. It starts with the second word. Does all mean to tell the whole truth or tell everyone the truth? As you continue to look, more words and phrases remain strangely ambiguous or completely undefined. We’re left with questions instead of answers — an odd thing for a poem about telling the truth.

In particular:
Lies is an interesting word to use when discussing truth. Does it mean success is to be found in circuit or that that success is lying?
• What is our infirm Delight?
• Usually the kind explanations of lightning that we tell children are made up stories that aren’t remotely true. How do falsehoods help us understand truth?
• If the truth is as bright and shocking as a lightning bolt, how can it dazzle gradually?
• And as with so many of Emily’s poems, what the hell is up with the punctuation?

Maybe we should take a second look at what’s going on.

Let’s start with the rhythmic structure of the poem. Emily uses a ballad form which consists of a strict iambic throughout with alternating tetrameter and trimeter lines. The rhyme scheme consists of two different end rhymes on alternating lines: lies/surprise on lines 2 and 4, kind/blind on lines 6 and 8. Now here’s why the rhythmic structure is important. Notice the lack of punctuation in this poem. The only marks are dashes at the end of the first line and the end of the poem. Yet we read the poem as a series of four sentences. (On a side note, the line-length of those sentences doubles as we go. The first two sentences are one line each. The next is two lines long, and the last is four lines long. This subtle use of enjambment accelerates the pace and adds energy to the poem as we read through it). Without any periods to guide us, the only thing that makes us break this poem into four sentences, as shown above, is the alternating rhythms and rhymes. And when reading the poem this way, those sentences must have an inverted syntactic structure.

But what happens if we read the poem as dictated by the punctuation? Emily is notorious for her use of dashes. She often used them in place of other punctuation marks. Here the dash is used instead of a period. So, if we read the poem with dashes representing periods, we still get the first line as its own sentence. But the rest of the poem becomes one long, compound sentence instead of three simple sentences. And when you read it this way, some interesting things begin to happen.

First, the inverted syntactic structure disappears. We can read it in our normal subject-predicate order. When read this way, we get the answers to the ambiguities and questions mentioned above. Here’s the poem again with some added punctuation (in red) to clarify how the poem would be understood as two sentences instead of four.

Tell all the truth but tell it slant.
SuccessinCircuit 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.

The first sentence/line retains much of the same meaning as on the first reading. But now that the second line is no longer its own sentence, we’re forced to read Success in Circuit as a noun phrase. Think of it as a hyphenated, compound noun, success-in-circuit, that makes up the subject instead of only Success as a single noun. This produces a myriad of semantic effects. (It’s important to remember that, since there was no electricity in the 1860s, circuit is better understood as circuitousness.) In our first reading with Circuit used as the object of an adverbial prepositional phrase, success in understanding the truth was achieved via a circuitous route. But when Circuit becomes part of the subject noun phrase, circuitousness itself becomes the success. The means has become the end. This also creates a distinction between telling the truth slant and telling it in Circuit. The concepts which were synonymous on the first reading are now contrasted. Something that is slant is angled but still straight. Something circuitous is curved and winding. But circuitous can also mean not being forthright. This new reading implies that a circuitous method won’t actually hit what it’s aiming at. It goes around the truth instead of dealing with it. Think of “beating around the bush” or “talking in circles”.

With in Circuit now part of the subject, Too bright for our infirm Delight becomes the new adverbial phrase that modifies lies, where before, the third line was an adjectival phrase modifying surprise. So now instead of the surprising nature of truth that’s too bright, it is circuitousness that lies too bright. Putting these two lines together, we see a dramatic shift in meaning. Instead of the poem saying “Fully conveying the truth is most successful via indirect methods of communication” and then moving on to a different thought about the surprising nature of truth, we now have an interpretation closer to “Successfully achieving circuitousness is found to be too bright for our infirm Delight.” This shift in subject also allows lies to coherently have a double meaning that was not possible in the first reading. With this double meaning in mind, we can also interpret this sentence as “Successfully achieving circuitousness creates falsehoods that are too bright for our infirm Delight.”

The new syntactic structure of our second reading also allows us to answer a question posed by the first. What is our infirm Delight? Previously the surprising nature of truth was too bright for it, but our delight was left undefined. It could mean a host of things: our ignorance, our comfortable yet false beliefs, etc.. Again we see this flipped. In our second reading with standard subject-predicate sentence structure, The Truth’s superb surprise becomes an appositive phrase that defines Delight. The original vagueness disappears. The surprising nature of truth is now a delightful, superb surprise. It’s a joy to discover the truth that circuitousness hinders.

When we move on to the lightning metaphor, grammatically it becomes a parenthetical instead of starting a new sentence. We also find it’s no longer a metaphor but an example of circuitousness obscuring the truth. Think of the stories we tell children about lightning, the kind explanations. Remember stories that said thunder was the result of angels bowling in heaven? Lighting happens whenever they get a strike, which is why we call it a lightning strike. We tell these stories so children aren’t afraid of storms. But they’re obviously false. We sometimes tell clever (bright) stories to make ourselves feel better. But they don’t get us closer to the truth. The kind explanation becomes an example of circuitousness, a comforting lie that explains away the truth instead of letting us delight in learning it.

Once we get to the last two lines, we see that they serve as the second independent clause of the compound sentence. And they still retain much of the same meaning only now, stripped of our truth-as-lightning metaphor, we can now see how the truth should dazzle gradually. The truth is no longer a bright flash of insight. Instead we discover it gradually, and because learning the truth is a delight, it dazzles us the more we understand it.

Up to this point we can see how the second reading seems to reverse much of the first reading. Where before we had four simple sentences, we now have one simple sentence followed by a long, complex one. The inverted sentences take on the typical subject-predicate structure. Phrases that modified one word now modify another. Indeed some words that meant one thing now mean something different. And all these changes produce the most important reversal. Truth isn’t a blinding flash that needs to be told indirectly but a dazzling delight gradually revealed, and it’s circuitous communication that blinds us, not the truth. But does the second reading subvert the first or is it additive?

It’s important to notice that the first line and the last two lines retain much the same meaning between the two readings. So we start at the same place and arrive at the same place, but we take different roads to get there. The reversals in meaning only apply to the middle part of the poem. So the second reading doesn’t change the meaning of the whole poem exactly but adds another focal point about truth and how to understand it. In the first reading the middle part of the poem shows us one aspect of the nature of truth — how blinding it is and how difficult it can be to face it. The second reading focuses on how it’s possible to obscure the truth while attempting to understand it by communicating in too circuitous a route. Putting these two concepts together shows us that it’s not just the brightness of the truth that can blind us but also the brightness of the telling. Because the truth can be hard to take (like a blinding flash of lightning) we should tell the truth in an indirect way (slant) that makes it more palatable. But at the same time, we must be cautious not to get too clever (too bright) in our telling. We can’t let surface aesthetics, like a well-told story, trick us into thinking something is true simply because the story is pleasing to our ears. Failure in both ways results in blindness.

Ultimately this becomes a poem that lives up to its own advice. At first, we’re only directly given one aspect of Truth — the simple part, the kind explanation. It’s easy to read this poem as in the first reading and feel good that we understand it. But that kind explanation is told in a way that invites us to look past the surface aesthetics and think about Truth a little more deeply. No matter how well we think we understand something, there’s always some ambiguity. There’s always more to know, more to understand, more to learn. We can’t let comfortable explanations, easy answers or superficial enjoyment blind us. We must keep digging, learning, exploring. It’s through constant exploration that we can feel the superb delight of understanding the Truth.

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One Comment:

  1. This is why I love poetry- and Emily is one of my favorites. Thanks for reminding me of something I have been away from for a long time.

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