A reading of a classic Dickinson poem by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘I died for Beauty – but was scarce’ – poem number 449 in Emily Dickinson’s Complete Poems – is one of her most popular poems, but, like so much of her work, its meaning remains difficult to pin down and analyse. Nevertheless, here at Interesting Literature we like a challenge, and so below we offer a brief summary and analysis of ‘I died for Beauty’ – its enigmatic lyrical beauty, its unusual tableau, and its use of symbols.
I died for Beauty – but was scarce
Adjusted in the Tomb
When One who died for Truth was lain
In an adjoining Room –
He questioned softly ‘Why I failed’?
‘For Beauty’, I replied –
‘And I – for Truth – Themself are one –
We Brethren are’, He said –
And so, as Kinsmen, met a Night –
We talked between the Rooms –
Until the Moss had reached our lips –
And covered up – our names –
In this short poem, Dickinson takes up the Keatsian double-act of Truth and Beauty, using the speaker’s death to convey the poem’s central idea. In summary, the speaker tells us that he (and we can deduce that the speaker is a ‘he’ from the poem’s later references to ‘Brethren’ and ‘Kinsmen’) died for Beauty, and when he was laid in the tomb it was to find that someone else newly dead – who had died for Truth – has been placed in the neighbouring room. This neighbour asks the poem’s speaker why he ‘failed’, and the speaker answers that it was for Beauty. The neighbour says that he died for Truth, and that the two of them are ‘Brethren’: kindred spirits. Truth and Beauty, as John Keats has it at the end of his ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’, are the same. The two of them then meet the ‘Night’ of death together, talking to each other until the moss grows around them and into their mouths and prevents them from speaking, and the names on their tombs have been covered up. Death, as so often with Dickinson, has the last word.
As she often does in her poetry, Emily Dickinson capitalises the nouns she uses as if to suggest they carry deep metaphysical or religious significance: Beauty, Truth, Night, Brethren, though also more commonplace words such as Tomb and Room. Of course, usually it is only proper nouns – names, in other words – that are capitalised in English, such as Emily or Basingstoke or Roger. Yet the very word Dickinson ends her poem on, ‘names’, goes uncapitalised – fittingly, in a poem which never divulges the names of either of the two figures who appear in it. The principles they died for, and not their individual identities, seem to be what mattered.
The poem might be seen, on some level, as standing in a similar relation to Keats’s poem as Wallace Stevens’s ‘Anecdote of the Jar’: Helen Vendler argued that Stevens’s poem is an American poet’s response to an English poem written about a European artefact (the Grecian urn). How can a poet from the New World, inheriting the European tradition of Keats (and ancient Greece), use that tradition to create something distinctively American and new? Whereas Keats’s concluding lines seem to wrap the matter up and shut off further questions, Dickinson’s poem leaves us wondering:
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’
Of course, these words are ‘spoken’ by the Greek urn itself in Keats’s poem: one Western artefact (a Romantic poem) giving voice to another (the Grecian urn). But if this is all we know, and all we need to know, such satisfaction is not forthcoming in Dickinson’s poem, and this is why the meanings of Truth and Beauty – and their precise relation to each other – remain difficult to analyse in ‘I died for Beauty’.
What would it mean to die for beauty – or Beauty? Or for truth/Truth? To give one’s life for a cause one passionately believed in? Something else remains puzzling about Dickinson’s description of the two kinsmen’s deaths. Dickinson describes the two figures as having ‘failed’: is this a simple synonym for ‘died’ here, as in failed to survive, or fell in battle? Or does this suggest that to die for what one holds dear is to fail? And although Truth and Beauty are presented as the same, the two figures in the poem are nevertheless buried in adjoining Rooms rather than the same room. Are they not quite so interchangeable as they might first seem, and are they simply similar – two sides of the same coin, but with one nevertheless being distinguishable as heads and the other as tails?
These questions remain open, as in many of Emily Dickinson’s poems – ‘I died for Beauty’ generates discussion that must always remain open-ended. What sort of analysis seems right to you – and how much should we read into that word ‘failed’, and the relation between Dickinson’s poem and Keats’s?
Discover more of Emily Dickinson’s best poetry with our discussion of her classic poem, ‘Because I could not stop for death’ and her ‘I heard a Fly buzz – when I died’. If you want to own all of Dickinson’s wonderful poetry in a single volume, you can: we recommend the Faber edition of her Complete Poems.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Black/white photograph of Emily Dickinson by William C. North (1846/7), Wikimedia Commons.