Study Guide

Tell all the truth but tell it slant — Themes

By Emily Dickinson

  • Truth

    Truth is the central theme in "Tell All the Truth But Tell it Slant." Dickinson's not talking about telling the truth in response to "Who ate the last Doritos Locos taco?" She's talking about a larger Truth (capital T)—what is real and true on a deeper level. It's the "who we are and what we're doing here" kind of truth—why we make art, or why there is beauty or pain, etc. Although she doesn't give us any exact answers about what the Truth actually is, she does get across that it's big, powerful stuff, and warns that it should be handed out bit by bit. Otherwise we might be completely bowled over, blitzed, and blinded.

    Questions About Truth

    1. If this is a poem about the truth, why doesn't Dickinson reveal exactly what the truth is? 
    2. What do you think the truth's "superb surprise" is? How can you tell? 
    3. Based on this poem, do you think the truth is a positive or negative thing? Or both? Why do you think so?
    4. How could the brilliance of the truth "blind" us, as Dickinson touches on in the final line?

    Chew on This

    Truth, in this poem, isn't one specific thing. It's the true essence of what lies beneath our world, the spiritual world, and us. Far out, y'all.

    Dickinson knows what the truth is, she just doesn't want to reveal it in the poem for fear she'll blind readers with its power. Good lookin' out, Em.

  • Art and Culture (Poetry)

    Art is truth. Poetry is art. Are we taking some liberties in interpreting "Tell All the Truth But Tell it Slant"? Maybe, but we think there's enough evidence to suggest that Dickinson was exploring truth on many levels in this poem. One that makes the most sense is poetry. Poems are things of increments—baby steps that build into something great. Usually, you have to spend some time analyzing many of a poem's elements before you're able to make sense of the sum of its parts—its particular truth, and then, hopefully, it will dazzle you, reveal its "superb surprise." (Ta-da!) We know Dickinson, not only in this poem, but in many of her others, believed that the "success" of her poems "in Circuit lie(d)."

    Questions About Art and Culture (Poetry)

    1. What do poetry and truth have in common? 
    2. Are there any lines in this poem that make you think of the act of writing, or making art? If so, which ones? Why? 
    3. What could a poem's "superb surprise" be? 
    4. Why would it be important, like the truth, for a poem to "dazzle gradually"? How could a poem "blind" its readers?

    Chew on This

    Dickinson doesn't really think poetry reveals truth so much as it's the process of seeking truth. It's more of a "journey, not a destination" kind of trip.

    Art and poetry have nothing to do with truth. They're just a product of human toil; truth is beyond human reach. (Happy now?)

  • Philosophical Viewpoints

    The foundation of any philosophy is basically trying to get at what is true. "Tell All the Truth But Tell it Slant" doesn't explore any particular philosophy, but we feel it's philosophical in nature. It's exploring the Truth—what it is, what it is in relationship to humans, and how powerful it can be. It's not unusual for poets to think, of course (it's hard to write a poem without thinking—trust us, we tried once) but this is some next-level thinking. Dickinson's not merely musing on the change of season or the ocean's unrelenting beauty (topics worthy of many-a-poem, b.t.w.). She's thinking beyond that, and that kind of thought exploration upgrades this poem to the philosophical level.

    Questions About Philosophical Viewpoints

    1. If you had to give a summary of what Dickinson's philosophy on truth was (based on this poem), what would it be? 
    2. What parts of this poem take us out of the real world and into the philosophical realm? What examples from the poem support your answer?
    3. What is your personal philosophy on truth? Try writing a short poem or paragraph to explain. 
    4. Has this poem changed the way you think about the truth? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Although Dickinson philosophizes about the truth, the poem offers no actual answers about what the truth is. Thanks bunches, Ms. D.

    At the heart of this poem's philosophy is that the truth can never be known in its entirety. Darn it all.

  • Religion

    Okay, we admit it: as a rule, it's not a good idea to take the poet's biographical information and use it to interpret a poem. We know that Dickinson was a devout Christian—that her upbringing, education, and personal beliefs were all Christianity-infused, but that doesn't give us the right to assume there's anything religious going on in "Tell All the Truth But Tell it Slant." What does give us the right, though, is the evidence in the actual poem. We've been reading poems for just about… ever, and when we see all that light, and truth, and frailty of the human race, we start thinking about religion, particularly in the Christian tradition. The proof is in the pudding (or, in this case, the poem).

    Questions About Religion

    1. Why do you think Dickinson would explore truth and God in the same poem? What do they have in common? 
    2. In this poem, what relationship do you think light or brightness has to God? 
    3. While it's likely this poem has hints of Christian influence, are there any other religions that would work just as well?
    4. If so, what are they and how would they fit?

    Chew on This

    Truth is just a code word for God in this poem. Whenever Dickinson writes about truth, she is really talking about God. Now program that into your decoder ring.

    Nope—our bad. The Shmoop team has overstepped their interpretation bounds. Dickinson's talking about truth in this poem, and that has nothing to do with God.