Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
While much has been made of Emily Dickinson's reclusiveness—and she was a little… hermit-like in the latter half of her life—the truth is (and that's kind of the point of this poem) that we just don't know a ton about Dickinson's personal life. What we do know: she had a conservative Christian upbringing in Amherst, Massachusetts; was well educated; was close to her family and select friends; and loved tootsie roll pops (okay so we made that last one up). Most importantly (for us, at least), Emily wrote approximately 1800 poems from 1858 to 1865 and bound many of them in tiny booklets called fascicles. Most of these poems—including "Tell all the truth but tell it slant"—were published (starting in 1890) after her death from kidney disease in 1886. She was 56 years old.
In those tiny booklets were small poems of typically short lines, scattered with long dashes that explored big ideas—like, really big. We're talking ideas like pain, death, grief, love, and, you betcha, Truth, with a capital T. And Truth is what this poem is scratching at. So you see, Shmoopers, what sense of exploration Dickinson lacked in her daily life she made up for tenfold in her poetry.
To read a Dickinson poem is a kind of exploration. Now hang on a second; put down your pith helmets. It's not at all like reading a travel log that chronicles adventures in different parts of the world. Instead, it's an exploration of the places we can't see, a metaphysical exploration. Before you get too bummed out, we'd say that this works out for us, and not just because we don't have to pay astronomical travel expenses. We can do all the exploring in our minds, which is an adventure Dickinson craved and tried to achieve through poetry. Describing her experience with poetry, she once wrote, "I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off." Hold on to your hats (and helmets), folks. This poem might just blow your mind.
Why Should I Care?
You want the truth? You can't handle the truth!. Jack Nicholson made these words famous over a hundred years after Emily Dickinson explored the very same idea in this poem. The truth—for better or worse—is a powerful thing. And while it may have been hammered into your brain at a very young age that telling the truth is one of the most important lessons you will ever learn, growing up you might have noticed that a) sometimes the truth hurts, and-or b) it's better if you carefully consider how to deliver it. Sure you may want to lay down a serious truth smack with an iron hand, but you gotta wrap it in a velvet glove, right?
For example: "Do these jeans make me look fat?" If the answer is "yes," a friend might not let you walk out the door wearing them, but a good friend will also make sure you don't feel terrible about yourself. Maybe he'll respond: "Jeggings are too weird for words. What's the point of fake pockets?" See that? Your friend has successfully delivered the truthful message that the jeans (scratch that, everyone knows jeggings aren't jeans) don't look good on you, but he hasn't called you fat. You just got a dose of some almighty, powerful truth... told slant—that is, not so bluntly that it knocks you out. Because even if we all want the truth—Jack's right—it can be pretty hard to handle sometimes.