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.”

Yo will know this poem of Emily Dickinson. I find it very interesting, and because it speaks about truth I have thought it could be appropriated to speak about it on this blog. Our physicists should be looking desperately for the truth, the truth about the hidden mechanisms that rule nature and conform our reality.

I am not native English speaker, I am not a philologist, I have not studied English Literature either. But, as you, I can think rationally about the meaning of things. It occurs the same in all branches of knowledge. The fact that I or you have not studied physics, by example, does not prevent that we can understand Nature thinking rationally by ourselves about things we observe, perceive and intuit. We only need to follow that little light that we all possess traditionally known as “reason”. In fact, there is no difference between to analyze and try to comprehend a poem and to try to understand “the book of” Nature. The separation between science and humanities is artificial. So, today I am going to tell you what is my interpretation about this Emily Dickinson’s poem. You can think about your own interpretation too, if you want to.

At first sight it is evident that Emily speaks about the truth and the necessity of expressing it gradually but, but the poem is mysterious in several lines: What does kind of relationship have the “Truth” with the “Success”? And, why does the “Success” lie “in Circuit”?

Emily was born in 1830. Electricity and the the practical use of the electrical stream had been discovered some years before. It is reasonable to think that the little Emily could feel very impressed with the first electrical lights. She was very sensitive and observant. And because the main theme of the whole poem is the light – she uses repeatedly the same image in “bright”, “De-light”, “Lightning”, “dazzle”, “blind” – I think it is reasonable to guess that the “Circuit” of the Emily’s poem is an electric circuit, an electrical stream, the source of an electrical light “too bright for our infirm delight”. The identification of light and truth is something frequent in the history of human beings but Emily identifies – at least in this interpretation – the truth with a particular kind of light, the strong light of an electrical source, the electrical light. It is convenient to put slant a strong electrical source for avoiding to blind people who is being illuminated.

And “Success”? What does success mean here? In Spanish we translate “success” as “éxito” and as “acierto”. “Acierto”, “Acertar” is something that occurs when you shoot an arrow an hit the target, when you win the lottery because of the numbers you elected were the correct ones, or when you make any logical supposition and you finally are right. “Acierto” opens a wide semantic field, related but very different too from “éxito”. “Acierto” (a-cierto) has the same root than “cierto”. “Lo cierto” is “the true”. We have a lot of words related to “cierto”: “certeza”, “acertado”, “acertar”, “desacertar”, “incierto”, “certidumbre” e “incertidumbre”, “acertijo”, “desconcierto”… they all refer in some way to the true, to that which is “cierto”.

It looks as if the English language, you will forgive me if I am wrong, has lost the semantic link between those two meanings that are preserved in the Spanish language between “success” and “the true”, or this link is less evident in english. suspect that Emily here uses the term “Success” in the less evident sense of the “The true” (which can be a very successful but very unsuccessful too). The relation that Emily establishes in the whole poem between Truth and Light is evident, but she plays with double meanings of words and their spatial positions to “slant” the direct meaning of the main line of the poem, “Success in circuit lies”. She slants and obscures consciously the meaningful light of that verse. I think it is her little secret, her kind and intelligent play. All the poem is a little play, a kind of non evident riddle. Emily loved plants, she cultivated them and known all their names, and had to love all the little things, little details, little plays too.

In this sense I think there are different links between lines and they can be read in different – doubled – ways. By example the poem could be read/interpreted as: Tell all the Truth but tell it slant – Success (the True) lies in (an electric) Circuit too bright for our infirm Delight. For our infirm delight the truth is a superb surprise. The truth is a superb surprise as lightning to the children. With explanation kind the truth must dazzle gradually.

Emily plays with the words and with the double meanings and links, like in a game of mirrors. The apparent simplicity of the poem is only apparent. I think it could even be thought, maybe in a too free way, that there is a hidden message in the poem too. She put intentionally in capital the inicial letters of some words. Does “Success” “Circuit” “Delight” “Children” refer to the enjoyment that Emily could experience the first time she shaw working successfully an electrical circuit of light? if it occurred in that way, it had to be a very exciting and impressive event for her and all her family. Or does “Success” “Circuit” “Delight” “Children” refer to the fact that children feel delight with the truth, that they do not result blind by its powerful brightness? Does not lye truth in the genuine and natural simplicity of our kids and their real desire to know?

I find very interesting that the many interpretations of the poem refer to “success” in its utilitarian sense of “achievement” – the life success, by example, or the professional success – and not to the sense related to the semantic field of “truth” which I suspicious had to exist and maybe has been lost in the English language.

Playing with the double meanings, it looks somewhat disturbing the double meaning of the verb “lie” linked to “Success”. Because in a poem related to the truth, “to lie” can by consider the opposite act of telling the truth. Does “success” – in their current meaning of material achievement – fault to the truth in a recurrent – as following the path of a closed circuit – way? Is any tangible success in our materialistic societies something merely apparent and false? This hypothetical interpretation is surely related to the believe that our societies have forgotten and relegated the passionate searching of truth in favor of the immediate and utilitarian success.

The search of truth only can be made trough the light of reason. Reason has been relegated today too in favor of success, immediate and practical results, benefits and incomes. Reason and truth have become too powerful lights for many people, particularly to those who believed and continue believing that Nature is irrational and is ruled by randomness. You know.

Anyway, do not expect slant nor gradual explanations from this blog.

Kind regards.

You can find several some other interesting videos about the Emily’s poem, by example:

Poet Joyce Peseroff reads Dickinson’s “Tell the Truth but tell it slant”

On Dickinson’s “Tell the Truth but Tell it Slant

This is an interesting article about Emily’s passion by plants and flowers: New York Botanical Garden features Emily Dickinson exhibit

If you are thinking of visiting Massachusetts, between March and December, you could be curious to visit the house Emily lived inclosed in during most of her life. It is currently The Emily Dickinson  Museum


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