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If You Must Tell The Truth, Tell It In Small Doses

A modern look at Emily Dickinson’s most poignant poem

Photo by Ray Bilcliff

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 — Emily Dickinson(1263)

When Emily Dickinson speaks from afar…

I listen.

As a most beloved poet from the 19th Century, Emily Dickinson’s words continue to ring true throughout time, and this time her poem #1263, tackles truth and why it needs to be meted out in small doses.

When the Speaker of the poems says, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant- /Success in Circuit lies”, I imagine they are saying the truth is like a Circuit. Circular, seemingly jumbled and everywhere, but it does hit the target directly.

But why should this be so?

Why should someone tell the truth in circles?

Several years ago, my husband and I were introduced to some roomies who knew all about Green Living, the true meaning of tithing, and more. On that first night, we watched Slam Poetry on YouTube until nearly 3a.m., and every night since then, they talked with us about Christian poets and the true Hebrew names of people in the bible.

They taught us this.

They taught us that.

It was a lot to take in, until finally we all exploded in frustration and arguments. The woman knew a lot, and truthfully, everything she mentioned in 2013 is ringing true in our lives now.

I just don’t know if we were ready for the total direct truth.

“Too bright for our infirmed delight”

These facts were way too bright for us at the time. We couldn’t handle it and it appeared that we were simply being told what to do or judged. It was far too much too soon.

During a conversation about this poem on Swell, a commenter mentioned all the truth tellers of our lifetime and before our lifetimes: Mahatma Ghandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcom X, etc. Some of these men were peaceful and/or misunderstood.

They handed out the truth, full frontal.

The full truth got them assassinated.

Great news! You no longer have to download the Swell app! You can just click here and listen to the conversation on slant truth on your phone or PC!

“As Lightning to the Children eased With explanation kind”

I think the truth is like a gentle bird’s song in the morning, or the smell of fresh, roasted coffee. Not an alarm clock or the banging of a monster from a nightmare.

It is something that is kind, and dazzles gradually. For those of us who are woke, would we prefer to be blasted with the truth, or take it in “smaller, dazzling portions?” Can humans even take on too much knowledge as a whole and still be sane?

I don’t quite know. Who has ever done so?

“The Truth must dazzle gradually Or every man be blind”

I think we can call be blinded by the truth.

We speak ill of lies, as we should.

Yet, what happens when we stare into the sun directly? It bathes our eyes in electric white and it blinds us. We feel it’s warmth and we are blessed for it, but can we truly see?

In a world of social media — everyone has the “truth”. Each side has “evidence of this or that”, so who can we believe? I get a headache following some commentators because they just know too much and got too much to say.

I suppose I am guilty of this too.

When I have a pen in hand (or computer), I regurgitate truths I’ve learned and thankfully, it takes up between 3- 7 minutes of your time.

Thank you, Emily, for reminding us of the joy of figuring out life in smaller, adventurous doses.

Thank you for reading!

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Emily Dickinson
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