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"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 --"
Of all the poems of Emily Dickinson, it's a little funny that this one feels so direct.
Dickinson is known for work that's full of ambiguity,
odd manipulations in meter and rhyme, images that seem mysterious and sometimes out of place.
It's poetry brimming with "slant truth," in other words,
poetry that puts into practice the very philosophy that's seemingly laid out here
in *perfect* meter and *matching* rhymes.
It strikes me as odd that the poem which best describes this philosophy is one in which she abandons it.
On first read, it appears that Dickinson is so intent on getting her point across that she repeats it four times.
First, in line 1, the most naked assertion. She implores, tell the whole truth but tell it indirectly.
Then in line 2, she says this another way:
Success in telling the truth lies in a circuitous journey, not a direct one.
In lines 3 and 4, she describes the failure of that direct approach.
The surprise of direct truth is too bright for our weak and unstable capacity for delight.
It will, in other words, short-circuit us.
And finally, in lines 5 through 8, she hammers home the point again using lightning as a metaphor.
[thunder] And finally, in lines 5 through 8, she hammers home the point again using lightning as a metaphor.
The apprehension of truth must be gradual, she says, like a parent's explanation of lightning to children,
rather than the lightning itself which, if looked at directly, would blind the viewer.
After these four phrasings the meaning could not be more clear:
the truth is something worth telling the world, but it can't be presented head-on.
It must come at an oblique angle if the writer hopes to have any chance at success.
Hey everybody, thank you so much for watching. I really appreciate --
[tape clicks]
You know what, it - it can't be that simple. Emily Dickinson always has something hiding up her sleeve.
[tape rewinding]
Let's go back and read through it again.
[thunder] "Tell all the truth but tell it slant --"
Right away in the first line, the one that seems the most overt, Dickinson plants a seedling of ambiguity.
It's here. The word "all."
Does it refer to "all the truth," as in "the whole truth" as we said before,
or "all the people" as in "tell everyone the truth?"
It's a small bit of uncertainty, but it opens up a crack in the poem that foreshadows things to come.
"Success in Circuit lies"
Things get wobblier in the second line. In a poem about truth, the word "lie" sticks out like a sore thumb.
The sentence invites us to read it as "reside or be found." Success resides in circuitousness.
But, as Professor Ashby Crowder points out, the speaker doesn't seem to realize
that she actually says "Circuit lies" too.
The line, in effect, containing its own contradiction.
"Circuit" is an important image in Dickinson's work, often contrasted with "Circumference,"
where Circuit means life as we know it, and Circumference is the outer limit of experience,
the tenuous, often frightening boundary between what human beings can understand
and infinity, or Truth with a capital T.
Dickinson has a deeply ambivalent relationship with Circumference,
at times expressing that it's safer to remain within one's Circuit,
at other times proclaiming, "My business is Circumference," as she once did in a letter.
Here, amazingly, she manages to condense that ambivalence into just four words
without losing any of its complexity.
"Too bright for our infirm Delight The Truth's superb surprise"
The immediate thing you notice is that the sentence is flipped around so that the final word can be "surprise."
The truth is a surprise, Dickinson says, one that is too bright for our delight (literally de-light),
an emotion that is inherently weak and feeble, she contends.
It's about now when things start to fall off the rails a little bit.
Because if truth is a surprise, a word that originally meant an attack without warning, a surprise too bright for us,
how can anyone grab hold of it in the first place to repackage it in a slant or circuitous way?
The word "surprise" at the end of this phrase almost starts to feel ominous,
like you've gone back into the poem only to find -- [thunder]
"As Lightning to the Children eased With explanation kind
"The Truth must dazzle gradually Or every man be blind --"
Now that we're looking at this poem with some suspicion,
it's easier to see the problems in the metaphor Dickinson picks to elucidate her earlier statements.
She equates telling slant truth to adults easing children about lightning.
Except it's not the children who are eased here.
According to this slightly confusing grammar, it's the lightning.
Does an explanation, however kind, actually ease the force of lightning?
It strikes me that children, equipped with feeble emotions,
facing a surprise attack from something that's so bright it will blind them have good reason to be scared.
All a kind explanation can do, as Professor Gary Lee Stonum notes,
is offer a "comforting but preposterous fiction,"
a realization that's brought home in the phrase "dazzle gradually," which sounds great with its assonance,
but is ultimately oxymoronic. Things can't dazzle gradually.
When something dazzles, like lightning, it happens all at once.
So where are we left after this?
Somewhere between the blindness of not ever being able to see the truth
and the blindness of actually seeing it.
This, I think, is where Dickinson wanted to get us all along.
She essentially wrote a poem that subverts itself. This is not direct like it appears to be.
She knew all too well that a kind explanation of her philosophy just wouldn't work.
The poem had to *be* the philosophy.
That feeling of the text being destabilized from within,
oscillating from meaning to the negation of that meaning,
that's Dickinson showing you the lightning. That's Dickinson stepping out onto the Circumference,
glimpsing some truth in the unstable place where language fails.
And it's dazzling. [thunder]
Hey everybody, thank you so much for watching. This is really the end this time.
[tape clicks]
Or is it? Yeah, it is. [tape clicks]
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