We dipped into the sound cloud a little in "Form and Meter." We couldn't help ourselves, the ballad made us do it. The way Dickinson uses form and meter contributes in a big way to the sound of the poem. So does the rhyme scheme. The daDUM daDUM daDUM of the meter ("Success in Circuit lies") combined with the end rhymes like "kind" and "blind" make for a tightly woven soundscape.
Dickinson uses a few tricks besides the form and meter to make sure all the fireworks are sounding at full blast. Check out her use of sibilance, which is just another way to say the alliteration of the S sound ("Success in Circuit" and "superb surprise"). It sure makes for some smooth sailing (yes, we can do it, too) through those lines. And if you weren't already impressed by her sound skills, she also throws in an example of internal rhyme in line 3—"bright" rhymes with "Delight"—for good measure. We're pretty sure she's covered just about all the sound bases in just eight short lines.
So what's the end result of all this sound kung-fu coming at us? Mainly, these sound techniques are there to ease our mind's ear (if you can picture that) along through the poem. The speaker's advice to take it easy with the truth plays out in the poem's use of sound techniques to gently, smoothly bring the reader along in this sweet-sounding affair.
Here's a little insider's tip: "Tell All the Truth But Tell it Slant"? That's not really the title. This poem doesn't actually have a title. In fact, none of Dickinson's poems do. Since their discovery, editors have given the poems numbers in an attempt to organize them. They're numbered in the order they were supposedly written. This one's 1129 (bingo?). It's a little late in the poetry game for Dickinson. Like many critics and publishers, we now let the first line of the poem do double duty as the title, too. And what a good duty is does, right? That first line really just sums up the crux of the speaker's argument. You've got the main idea packaged right there for you, wrapped up and handed over on a silver platter before you even get to line 2. Now that's convenience.
Where are we? We're not really sure. Our best guess is we're in the headspace of a reclusive twenty-something woman from the late 1800s. That's right; we're all up in Emily Dickinson's brain. It's not as weird as it sounds. Many of Dickinson's poems are musings on deep ideas like love, death, grief, longing, and in this case, truth.
Reading this poem is like having a front row seat to watch the inner workings of one of America's most revered and talented artists. Enjoy the view, or failing that (since, you know, there's not much of anything to look at here), enjoy the conversation.
At first it sounds like someone might be bossing us around in this poem. The first part of the opening line, "Tell all the Truth" has an authoritative vibe, like something a parent, teacher, or other "in-charge" person might say. It takes a minute, but we realize this speaker isn't so much bossing as philosophizing. He or she (it's never clear which) is thinking about the truth with a capital T, and what that means to us, fragile, sensitive humans that we are.
Think of the speaker as someone deep in thought, someone who has willingly surrendered the Xbox for the afternoon and is seriously contemplating the big-picture things in life. More than that, this person feels downright compelled to pass this advice along to us. Thanks for the tip, yo.
On the surface it looks like this is going to be an easy one. First off, it's tiny. It's only eight lines long, and some of those lines are super-short. Second, Dickinson stays on the same subject the entire time. And third, the vocab isn't too tricky. But after you dive in, you realize the central theme of the poem—the truth—could also stand for a bunch of other things. There's the surface of this poem—a shiny, perfect package—then there's all the stuff that's bubbling beneath it, which is murky, deep, and endlessly fascinating. Bring your hip boots and pack a lunch.
If you're looking for a poet to chronicle the tiniest physical details of everyday life, you're in the wrong place. While some poetry delights in painting a vivid, tangible picture for its readers, Dickinson's poetry is after something else altogether. She wants to explore big ideas. Her poems are filled with the things we live with, and are essential to our very souls, but that we can't necessarily describe. We certainly can't see or touch. Some of her favorite topics are death, grief, loneliness, longing, love, hope, God, and truth.
These are things you think or feel, but could never rest your hand on. Does that mean they don't exist? Emily Dickinson certainly thinks they do, and she wrote over a thousand poems as a testament to that belief. That we still read her poems hundreds of years later is a testament that we share some of those beliefs. She gives a voice to them, however difficult they may be to wrap our heads around. Just check out "'Hope' is the thing with feathers—," or "'Faith' is fine invention" for more examples.
Emily Dickinson was no stranger to church. She grew up in a religious household, and even spent a year at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. So, that means that she was no stranger to hymns, either. The rhythm of the church hymns worked their way into her brain and were spat right out again in poem form. And she wasn't the only poet to do this. Way back in the day, before paper (never mind iPads), poets used to deliver their poems as song, and the form they chose was the ballad.
The ballad is a perfect form if you want to belt out your poem in song because of its rhythm and rhyme. There are alternating lines of iambic tetrameter. What's that mean in English? Well, each odd-numbered line has eight syllables, divided up into four iambs per line). An iamb is a two-syllable pair which starts with an unstressed syllable and ends on a stressed one: daDUM. Four of those bad boys in one line? You've got some sweet iambic tetrameter ("tetra-" means four) on your hands:
Tell all the truth but tell it slant — (1)
Hear the iambs? You should get daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM. And for the even-numbered lines you should hear just one less daDUM. That's because those have iambic trimeter ("tri-" meaning three), daDUM daDUM daDUM:
Success in Circuit lies (2)
So, Dickinson's borrowing this meter from church hymns (check out "Amazing Grace"), but what about the rhyme scheme? We get perfect end rhymes on the even-numbered lines ("lies" and "surprise," "kind" and "blind"). But the odd-numbered lines are just… well, odd. They have very slight slant rhymes: "slant" and "Delight" have the same hard T ending (that's called consonance in the poetry biz), while "eased" and "gradually" have the same long E sound (or assonance). This kind of near rhyme actually is a pretty neat way to emphasize the speaker's advice to tell the truth "slant." We don't just get full-on rhyming, in the same way we're not meant to just belt out the truth full on. Pretty neat, huh?
Dickinson was one slick lady. She was not shy at all when it came to writing about the "big" ideas like love, grief, death, and truth. And she was boss enough to be able to write about these big ideas on many different levels. In this poem, Truth could be (and likely is) many things—the truth about the meaning of life, living your life in a true and honest way, the truth of God, etc.
There are many ways to interpret that capital T "Truth." We even suspect that telling the truth "slant" is an extended metaphor for writing poetry. She knows, as a poet, that it's important to "dazzle gradually" for a poem to make a strong impact on its reader. That's just what she does—she unravels, line by line, the brilliance of the poem with measured patience so we're not overwhelmed or confused. In the end we're revealed a sort of epiphany—or, to put in another way: truth.
Truth, in this poem, could also be the truth of God. We know Dickinson was a religious person and definitely believed in the Christian God. Just as the truth is revealed bit by bit in this poem, so could the proof of God. And Dickinson hints at this with light imagery (going to the light at death is considered being pulled up to heaven by God), and the mention of children. In Christian religions, God's constituents, or believers, are often called his children ("peeps" is a distant second).
Even if truth isn't a metaphor for God in this poem (and we think there's enough evidence to link the two), Dickinson's Christian education and upbringing is certainly shining through here. (Light? Shining? Anyone? Is this thing on?)
The truth isn't the easiest thing to explain, especially when you're trying to explain just how to tell it, so Dickinson lends us a helping hand by placing a simile about lightning right smack dab in the middle of the poem. The simile runs through the entire second half, actually:
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind— (5-8)
In other words, kids can be soothed when you gently explain what lightning is and how it works. In the same way, you've got to unveil the truth bit by bit, or it'll be too hot, and too bright, and just plain too much to handle.
On the front porch sat a cat with gray stripes. Or, a cat with gray stripes sat on the front porch. The first sentence is an example of inversion—a reversal of normal word order, or syntax, especially in the placement of the verb (in this case, "sat") in front of a subject (in this case, "cat"). Although the second sentence might sound more familiar, the first one is certainly ear-catching.
It also fits nicely into the ballad form we talk about in "Form and Meter." But beyond the sound of it, inversion does this cool thing where it helps to delay the meaning of the sentence. You have to read all the way through it to figure it out. It's almost as if inverting the sentence helps Dickinson "dazzle (us) gradually" with the "truth" of this poem.
We can't actually see the truth. It's abstract, or something that exists without a concrete, physical presence, like love or grief. But even though we can't see the truth, Dickinson does her best to, ahem, illuminate it for us. She infuses this poem with images of bright things to light up the truth. In line 3, she comes right out and says it: "too bright for our infirm delight." Then she lights us up with the mention of lightning and dazzling. Even the word "Circuit"—though here it probably just refers to going around something—might have you thinking about electricity.
Regardless, the truth is abuzz and bright, so you might want to wear your sunglasses.
This poem has about as much sex in it as there was in nineteenth-century Puritanical Massachusetts on a Sunday. In other words: none. Feel free to read this one aloud from the church pew. There isn't even enough steam in it to smooth an already starched napkin.