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Featured Poem: Tell All The Truth by Emily Dickinson

Written by Rachael Norris, 2nd September 2019

This week's Featured Poem is 'Tell All The Truth' by Emily Dickinson, chosen by The Reader's Learning and Quality Coordinator, Lisa Spurgin.

This is a poem which I’ve come across a few times before, and I’m always staggered at how eight lines can give so much to think about. Just because it’s short doesn’t mean that it’s easy - it does require a few reads through to really get into, so let’s break it down.

Immediately the first line trips me up. Surely telling ‘all the truth’ shouldn’t require a ‘but’ – isn’t that a contradiction in itself? It’s making me think about what exactly ‘slant’ means. Is it to tell the truth in a certain way, with softer words that take the harsh edges away? Or is about picking and choosing which parts of the truth to convey in any one instance? Why do we need to do this – are we afraid that whoever we are telling the truth to is unable to handle it in its entirety? Or perhaps it has more to do with feeling a weight of responsibility upon ourselves – if we give all of it at once, then perhaps important things will get lost along the way or become clouded in our memory.

The next three lines might help us out here, although I’m a bit confused by what ‘Success in Circuit’ is. Do success and truth have to align closely? Perhaps it is more to do with our understanding of the truth, and from this we might get several different versions, all of which will inevitably be ‘slant’ as we look at it from differing perspectives. I don’t know what to make of the truth being a ‘superb surprise’, but I think I like it. It feels reassuring in some way to be surprised and to not know all the answers, especially when it comes to a concept that has such weight attached to it.

In turn that this surprise is ‘too bright for our infirm Delight’ gives us not an excuse but a good reason for being slant; it’s not quite the same as being warned not to look directly at the sun but it does make me think of a protection of some sort, not being overwhelmed or knowing too much too soon – because where else would there be left to go if we did know all the truth? It would be like information overload, which is never a good thing to be faced with.

The final four lines seem to me to support this line of thought of getting more out of something by knowing it bit by bit, and returning to it again and again – like we do in Shared Reading! I love the idea of ‘The Truth must dazzle gradually’. It makes me think of little sparks lighting up, perhaps when we least expect them to, or the sunlight washing over the sea to highlight things we don’t usually notice about the landscape. It’s the impermanence of these moments that make them beautiful and stand out, and while I think of the truth as being a different concept, I think there’s definitely more value and understanding to be had in breaking it down and letting it meet us at different points in our lives, when we may well view it distinctly.

Maybe if I read it again in a few years’ time, I’ll find it dazzling in another way once more…

 

Tell all the Truth

 

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

 

If you like the idea of listening along to a story or poem, why not come along to a Shared Reading group? We run groups across the UK, you can find one near you here.

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