Emily Dickinson told all the truth but tell it slant
Truth is a difficult concept to grasp, and in the philosophical pursuit of it, it is often rendered mercurial. Any objective definition that tries to capture it is often clouded by individual prejudice and conviction. Undoubtedly, it is inextricably, as well as connotatively, linked to a collective reality, and although we like to believe there is objectivity to our perception of our surroundings, we cannot remove our subjectivity from what we observe and feel, and then what we conclude to be the truth. Much of 19th Century American poet, Emily Dickinson’s literary work and thought processes seem to elaborate on this experience of a subjective truth, rather than substantiating a universal one. Her life is often described as being that of a social hermit, of a pathologically enigmatic and inverted character. Yet, Dickinson’s writings reveal her to be an ardent observer of life and society, in that they document her everyday experience, and try to elucidate a sense of authenticity of feeling and morality. In this essay, I will explore Dickenson’s emphasis on sentiment and honesty, which often is summed up in one of her well-known lines: “Tell all the truth but tell it slant…”. To do this I will consider one of her poems, My Life had stood-a Loaded Gun, and demonstrate how she expresses authenticity in a multifaceted way.
Emily Dickinson was concerned with writing about the entirety of the human sphere, through her subjective connection to it, because she felt her mental life “…..was inseparable from the universal” (Rich, 1979, p. 107). Although her poetry has an emotionality and rawness about it that makes it easy to view as “confessional”, her intent is not primarily about divulging her inner experience. In describing her process and work in a letter to literary mentor and friend, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, she said it was the “ …business of circumference…”(White, 2002, p. 91). We can take this to mean she was not using her poetry as merely an emotional outlet, she was trying to grasp the outer world and contemplate the true nature of humanness. Adrienne Rich (1979), who is a prominent American feminist and, essayist and poet, does not dismiss or underplay the reclusive life and the withdrawn nature, which is so readily associated with Dickinson, but argues these were “her necessities”. Rich situates Emily Dickinson in the heavily patriarchal context in which she lived. Rather than being a pathological weakness, Rich sees Dickinson’s seclusion as a coping strategy, a practical decision and an internal defence against the external world (p. 101). In this way, the common representation of her life becomes analogous to “telling it slant”. Dickinson may have been a social outsider, but she needed to limit her social life in order to contemplate, articulate and express her inner truths, and in that way she was able to generate a wisdom, rather than an objective truth. Telling anything honestly only can be done in a way that it looks slanted to someone, and to encapsulate a subjective situation in its totality, one needs to use “slanted” wisdom, rather than objective knowledge.
In this interest of finding and consolidating what felt authentic, Dickinson wrote down everything relentlessly, about “…all the little things…”, as though she was fearful that she would lose meaning or momentum to the monotony of life at any minute (Kirk, 2008, p. 337), Literary scholar, Gudrun M. Grabher (2008) theorises that human consciousness and language, were the preconditions for Dickinson to be able to deal with her “…very personal and individual experience and perception…”(p. 259-260). Also in a similar vein, Adrienne Rich’s description of Dickinson as “…somehow too strong for her environment”, seems to reflect the disquiet, this sense of urgency to understand the true state of the world, and also her mind (Rich, 1979, p. 101). Writing enabled her to understand what she garnered from her own experience, in terms of a broader social consciousness. It gives rise to two intertwined experiential understandings- of herself and of society. Queer English scholar, Suzanne Juhasz (1986), calls this “doubledness” and observes it often is employed by women when writing to subvert social norms (p. 6). Dickinson often combines the two knowledges, and by using metaphors , it “doubles” the meaning in her writing (Barker, 2002, p. 84; Juhasz, 1986, p. 7).
We can see this relentless grappling with society and self as provoking her creativity, her need to assert her genuine subjectivity and perception. In one of Dickinson’s numerous letters to her cousin she poses the rhetoric and philosophical question “… for what is each instant but a gun, harmless because ‘unloaded,’ but that touched ‘goes off’?...” (Kirk, 2008, p. 340). She later repeats and elaborates on this metaphor in My Life had stood-a Loaded Gun. Yet in reading this particular poem, we feel this unpredictability of time through the fraught relationship Dickinson had with the socially expected but confining servitude as a woman. The second and fourth lines tend to rhyme, in in iambic trimeter, creating a predictable and certain rhythm, which seems playful but systematic, like the semantic expression. The words reveal her frustration of realising her personal power and yet it being contained by society, but she expresses this truth, by again doubling the poem’s meaning. She describes the personal and relatable, a hunting trip in the woods, but also uses that to illustrate societal practices. The poem uses a metaphor of a gun needing to be possessed in order to be powerful, to conflate femininity with lifelessness. This concise expression reveals a brutally honest and wholistic portrayal of what the outer world can do to an individual.
Dickinson’s poems draw on the minutiae of life to reflect upon the truth of the structures and powers that shape it. In this way, the first words of the poem “My Life” relates to her own unique existence, then separated by a dash, she continues and uses the metaphor of herself as a “Loaded Gun”. It elucidates the imminent and explosive power that her moments in fact have. Dickinson’s interchangeable use of gendered pronouns throughout the poem, depicts her ambiguous relationship to her own femininity (Rich, 1979, p. 102). It also alludes to this problematic contradiction of powerfulness coupled with an overt passivity. The fact that Emily Dickinson, as the poet, has now become a “…sentimental object…” to some readers (Rich, 1979, p. 106) is pertinent, because in this poem of hers, “the gun” (her life) also rests as inanimate “In Corners—“, only having the capacity to be owned and moved. This sets up an equivalent to marriage or some other subordination, women are only seen as socially useful or influential when they are submissive, in the hands of a man. For like a gun without someone to pull the trigger, they have no choice but to wait for the limited liberty that marriage offers. But in subsuming the masculine role of gun owner, Dickinson alludes to her own power and drive, but renders female subjectivity elusive in the poem, and in society. Like this, Dickinson tells all the truth of her experience, and to do this, she employs metaphor and analogy to express the entirety and complexity of it.
A social truth expressed in this intricate way presents a deeper and fuller construction of the world than telling the truth straight, and it generates “a richer and more complex work of art” (White, 2002, p. 93). Since it portrays“…that interconnectedness, that power” of things, that Dickinson in her poetry and life, is constantly trying to reach (Juhasz, 1986, p. 14). We can see this in the second stanza, in how the poem shifts focus to how “the gun” lives with, and is controlled by, its independent owner. In characterising an individual and metaphorical scenario, she is able to illuminate an honesty of the social position that marriage ushers a person into. The line, “And every time I speak for Him/ The Mountains straight reply –”, leads one to viscerally feel the absolute isolation of being in the unyielding “Sovreign Woods” (and marriage). The word, Sovreign establishes a power-laden [possibly domestic] setting, where although “the gun” is potent, lethal and can transcend nature, it is only effective when acting as the capitalised “We”. The repetition of the conjunction “And” at the beginning of each line, seems to gesture towards the tedium of one’s existence being restricted and yet indebted to another being. It is interesting to note, that the gun is confined to “speaking” for the masculine, but even then only the mountains reply, it can never speak for itself. Dickinson articulates some deeply ingrained societal beliefs about the role of women and personal servitude in the considered analogy, using personification and imagery, which enables this text to express far more than the basic facts, and a deeper truth.
In describing the world as she sees it, Dickinson unavoidably reveals the [slanted] confines of her social position as a woman, and thus describes the patriarchal weight on the individual. Through the gun in this poem, I feel Dickinson is positioning her persona as gender-neutral, and therefore is more able to depict her sense of self and the world in equal measure. Being aggressive and brave, and aligned with the masculine “We hunt the doe…. To foe of His – I'm deadly foe –“, displays how as a woman poet, she is “living doubly”, as both a perceiving subject of the misogynist society and an object of it. Precisely as Juhasz says “…any attempt to write female experience cannot help but include the dominant culture as well”. The use of an ambiguous guise may be to diffuse the pain associated with her femaleness, so she can explore the social aspects (Juhasz, 1986, p. 10). Writing as an androgynous subject self-sabotages and sacrifices a female agency (Rich, 1979, p. 104), which again adds another layer of understanding of social womanliness.
in the third stanza, Dickinson hints at the subject’s femininity, beginning with “And do I smile, such cordial light”, seems to reflect the limited joy of women is deeply tied to a cordial politeness. But in that superficiality, one can rely on the nature and “the Valley glow –“, as it defiantly generates pleasure and Venusian light (perhaps to write by), in the face of the darkness of things such as hunting Does, or the pain of societal restraints on one’s personal choices. In writing of an imagined hunting trip, I feel Dickinson is angling her writing towards authoritative men, but then also uses that as a medium to express her discomfort and truth, both in her personal life and of society.
In recognising how Dickinson is constantly “doubling” her meaning, it becomes apparent what she means by telling the truth “slant”. As the gun guards “...[its] Master’s Head” in the fourth stanza, we can sense the reverence she has for men, and employ that in picturing the gun’s staunch position above the owner’s bed. Yet, even with that reverence, Dickinson still rejects the notion of sharing a “Deep Pillow”, which again alludes to her apprehension of the institution of marriage. For the final stanza articulates, “Though I than He – may longer live/He longer must – than I –“, insinuating that in the inert restrictions of being a gun (or a woman) obscures its independent subjectivity. And by sharing a bed, its position in the world would be even more tied to the masculinity/humanness of its owner. We can read the concluding lines, “For I have but the power to kill, Without - the power to die –“, as Dickinson saying being subordinated, women are denied the humanity, but they are expected to exist as objects for others. In this way, Dickinson is able to explicate her own feelings to comment on a volatile social truth, and then ends with a dash, implying it is not definitively the end. There is room for society to change.
Truth-telling is not as forthright as it seems, and Emily Dickinson demonstrates how to really understand and locate collective truths, she needs to delve inwards, not outwards. Our version of the truth of things may be “slanted” towards our individual perspectives, but to tell all of it, to tell all of the truth of our inconsistent mental experiences, requires it to be indeed slanted and convoluted. Through My Life had stood-a Loaded Gun, Dickinson artfully contextualised her sense of her surroundings in a broader social commentary. She used metaphorical, emotive and descriptive language to ensure “all of her truth” was conveyed.
Barker, W. (2002). Emily Dickinson and poetic strategy. In W. Martin (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Emily Dickinson: (pp. 77-90). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Grabher, G. M. (2008). “Forever - is Composed of Nows -”: Emily Dickinson's Conception of Time A Companion to Emily Dickinson (pp. 258-268): Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Juhasz, S. (1986). Writing Doubly: Emily Dickinson And Female Experience. Legacy, 3(1), 5-15.
Kirk, C. A. (2008). Climates of the Creative Process: Dickinson's Epistolary Journal A Companion to Emily Dickinson (pp. 334-347): Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Rich, A. (1979). Vesuvius at home: The power of Emily Dickinson. On Lies, Secrets, and Silence: Selected Prose 1966-1978, 157-183.
White, F. D. (2002). Emily Dickinson’s existential dramas. In W. Martin (Ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Emily Dickinson: (pp. 91-106). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.