Emily Dickinson and Truth

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Camille and I tackle a short, brilliant Dickinson poem this week. What is truth? How can it best be told? How do we learn and understand it? These are the questions on the poet’s mind, and she has answers.

The poem is conventionally understood one way. Camille takes that path, though I believe far more creatively than most. I come at the poem from a very unconventional angle.

How do you see it?

 

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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 —

 

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Sandy Kress –

 

I must push back – in certain ways – on the conventional understanding of this poem.

Many read Dickinson to be suggesting that all the truth should be told, but not necessarily at once, and certainly very carefully. This is so, these commentators say, because the truth is too hard to take straight.

They point for support to the verses that suggest that truth is “too bright” and that it requires, as does teaching lightning to children, to be “eased” and delivered with “explanation kind.” If truth dazzles too suddenly, it will “blind.”

I do not want to argue altogether with this explanation – at least at the surface level. But I think the poet has a deeper intention in mind.

She is saying, I think, that truth is complex, profound, and incapable of expression in its fullest “truth” in simple and easy motions. It comes at its best with “superb surprise,” and especially from many directions. It comes at “a slant.” It comes mostly from round and round; “success in Circuit lies.”

Our fragile capacity to be enlightened requires that truth often be revealed through indirection and in a spectrum of colors, not because we can’t handle it “too bright.” Rather we get it better and truer that way. I have no better evidence for my view than Dickinson’s poetry itself. Unlike many other poets, she tells “all the truth,” but tells it “slant.”

The world often seems to us “as Lightning to children.” It’s not that we can’t take the truth or need it watered down. It’s just more felicitous to know what it really is, not just what it appears to be on first impression. Our sense of truth, for example, can be “eased” when a “kind” poet cares enough to share her hard earned understanding so that we get that understanding, too.

Truths, such as those Dickinson tells, do indeed “dazzle gradually.” This is not because they would blind us if we tried to get them straight or quickly. Rather she is saying we may remain blind to Truth if we do not get it as It best comes.

 

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Camille Kress –

 

Like lighting, four words strike me in the first line. Let’s deal with them in a flash.

Tell: We are charged with a bold instruction.
all: not some, not mine, but all.
truth: it’s not capitalized, something to watch for when reading Emily Dickinson.
slant: Knowing that Dickinson often equates truth with light, the poet’s choice of the word “slant” evokes, for me, a prism in which refracting surfaces at an acute angle separate white light into a spectrum of colors.

It should be noted that poetry that does not perfectly rhyme is called slant rhyme, or approximate rhyme. Perhaps the poet is asking us to remember that truth begins as approximate. But, in that it emanates from something Whole, it can become more fully known.

We sense this trajectory in the next line when we see classic Emily capitalization – “Success in Circuit lies.” Success, here, suggests accomplishment, the creation of a Circle, a full circumference containing, not approximate, but “all the truth” – the Truth.

Can you imagine Light hitting you from such completeness? The shear bolt would, indeed, be “Too bright for our infirm Delight.”

“As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind”

When children are afraid of lightning, we admit to them its startling and frightening side, but we also tell the truth through the rest of the story – its likely distance, its beauty, its science.

So, how is Truth told?

It “dazzles gradually,” she says. If it did not, “every man be blind,” as if struck by unrefracted Light.

Looking through the prism of this poem, I see all kinds of ways we tell truth with slant: poetry, parables, myths, proverbs, folktales, nature, and the like.

It is in the best of them that we find our Delight through Truth’s “superb surprise.”

 

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