Study Guide

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —

By Emily Dickinson

Tell all the truth but tell it slant — Introduction

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.

What is Tell all the truth but tell it slant — About and 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.

Tell all the truth but tell it slant — Resources

Websites

The Emily Dickinson Museum
This site is great source for biographic information about Emily Dickinson as well as a good starting place for look at her poems. If you get really into her, you can visit the actual museum, which is the homestead in Amherst where she grew up.

The Poetry Foundation
The Poetry Foundation knows what's up. Get a good sense of Dickinson's poetry in the larger context of American poetry and see what some of the best critics on Dickinson have to say.

A Good, Quick Reference for Students
This may not the most in-depth look at Dickinson's work, but it's not a bad place to start out if you need a little reading companion (besides your Shmoop crew, of course).

Dickinson's on Facebook!
Well, not really, but this page keeps you up-to-date with all current Dickinson goings on.

Video

Dickinson: Still Making News
The discovery of a rare photo of Dickinson from her college years makes the CBS Evening News.

Dickinson's Garden
Check out how Dickinson's gardens inspired her poetry.

Biographical Vid
Here's a narrative biography of Emily Dickinson.

Audio

Twenty-five Dickinson Poems
This isn't Dickinson reading, of course, but these are great live recordings of some of her most famous poems.

A Little Drama
Actors give a dramatic reading of Dickinson's letters and poems.

Image

Class Portrait Time!
Here's one of the only existing photographs of Dickinson from her time at school.

Images

The Same But Different
Here's another portrait of Dickinson with a different hairstyle.

Articles and Interviews

"The Immense Intimacy, the Intimate Intensity"
Poet, scholar, and critic Edward Hirsch explores the impact of Dickinson's poems.

"Emily Dickinson's Secret Lover"
Slate has a little imaginative fun.

Books

The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson
Have it all! Here's all of Dickinson's poetry in one book—a treasure.

Book

Letters of Emily Dickinson
Dickinson's prolific letter writing offers a glimpse into the life and work of one of America's most beloved and mysterious poets.

Movies & TV

Loaded Gun: Life, and Death, and Dickinson
This independent film examines who Dickinson really was, especially in relationship to her haunting poems. Despite the dramatic title, this film has nothing to do with murder. (Bummer?)

A Quiet Passion
Sex in the City's Cynthia Nixon plays Dickinson in the 2014 biopic. Weird.