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A Guide for Prophets: Dickinson’s “Tell all the Truth”

Emily Dickinson famously advised the reader to “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant.” In the ensuing reading of those brief eight lines, a great deal of emphasis has been laid at the idea of slantness. While that notion is certainly significant, I’d like to focus on a different word from the first line: all. Before going on, however, let’s consider the poem in its entirety.

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Circuit 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—

Dickinson does not say to “tell the truth.” She instead enjoins us to tell all the truth. Why? THe reason is fairly clear in the poem. First of all, telling the truth slantwise–whatever that means–is necessary for success. One certainly does not want to communicate ineffectively, yet there is more to the command. In the film A Few Good Men, Jack Nicholson’s Colonel Jessep famously blared to Tom Cruise, “You can’t handle the truth.” As it turned out, Cruise’s attorney persona could handle Jessep’s truth and handled the colonel straight into Leavenworth. Dickinson, however, points to a truth a bit less handle-able than Jessep’s. This capital-T Truth is “Too bright.” It dazzles, and if it does not “dazzle gradually,” it will render those who see it blind. This is some powerful Truth.

By inserting that brief adjective “all” into the first line, Dickinson does not simply fill out her eight-beat line. She instead alters the meaning of “truth.” We’re not talking here about telling the truth as opposed to lying. We’re talking about telling “all the Truth,” getting to the easy and the hard facts, facing the enormity of Truth.

What Truth does Dickinson mean? I would suggest that there is a bit of Puritan theology floating behind the poet’s words here. The idea of a Truth too bright for the viewer, a force that will blind if confronted head on, evokes Exodus 33:20, “no one may see me [God] and live” or Isaiah’s lament upon finding himself in the presence of God:

 “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” (Isaiah 6:5)

It is in Isaiah’s words that we have a sense of why the Truth is such an overwhelming thing. Isaiah recognized himself as a “man of unclean lips” or a sinner. That sense of total depravity or fallen-ness seems to lie behind Dickinson’s “infirm Delight.” Why will “all the Truth” so overawe the recipient? It is not that human senses cannot deal with that Truth but rather that those senses, that “Delight,” are infirm. They are sick. In a Puritan-descended Massachusetts town like Amhearst, we might say that those senses are fallen.

Did Dickinson intend to offer advice to the up-and-coming prophet? I will not commit the Intentional Fallacy by claiming such a purpose, but I find it reasonable to read these lines in such a manner.

Posted in American Literature, Victorian.

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