I died for Beauty

In ‘I died for Beauty’, Emily Dickinson presents the entombment and inexorable silencing of truth and beauty.  The linking of these has literary precedents: Shakespeare explored the relationship of truth with beauty in ‘The Phoenix and the Turtle’, which concludes with a lamentation for both; in ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’, Keats writes of the urn that its ‘silent form, dost tease us out of thought / As doth eternity.'; the urn’s message is that truth, beauty (and the creative imagination) remains to become a friend to man in times to come.  In this poem, Dickinson takes Keats’ considerations and builds on Shakespeare’s lament with an uncomfortable gothic image of black entombment and helpless immobility.  We have here another chilling example of how Emily Dickinson ‘died all her life, [and] probed death daily’ (Aiken), to discover/establish meaning. 

I died for Beauty – but was scarce    See line three, below.

Adjusted in the Tomb    Analysis of this is very cold word suggests the corpse is de-animated by the unfeeling, technical nature of it.  In ‘It was not Death, for I stood up’, the bodies are ‘set orderly': the connotations of manipulation combined with the recurring use of the passive tense are anonymity and de-personalisation of the body.

When One who died for Truth, was lain    Dickinson is alluding to ‘Truth and beauty buried be’ (‘The Phoenix and the Turtle’)

In an adjoining room –      Homely atmosphere of the tomb comprising rooms.  The two are together and yet separate.  

He questioned softly ‘Why I failed‘?       Far from being the mortician’s anonymous bodies, the dead remain self-critical individuals: they recognise their own failures and understand that failure is entailed in any search for understanding.

‘For Beauty’, I replied -

‘And I – for Truth – Themself are One –    Analysis of the poetic diction reveals the singular use of the reflexive ‘-self’ (instead of the plural ‘-selves’), which, when combined with the plural ‘them-‘, together enhance both the sense of oneness and that of duality.   These grammatical elements build on Keat’s line in ‘ ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’ that: ‘Beauty is Truth, truth beauty’ to show that the connection between truth and beauty is combined in both language use and meaning.

We Brethren, are, He said –    There is a christian (and perhaps an evangelical) overlay on this word

And so, as Kinsmen, met a Night –   The male kinship aspect of ‘Brethren’ and ‘Kinsmen’ is partly a convivial idea of family coming together in the evening but ‘night’ is also symbolic of death. 

We talked between the Rooms –  ‘between’ suggests closeness until we read ‘the rooms’

Until the Moss had reached our lips –    This is a terrifying image because of the slowness of the stifling process.  

and covered up – our names –    The first dash, in this line, constitutes a pause before the surprise of ‘our names’.   This is a complexly layered image which, when linked with ‘we talked’ incorporates: the links between speech and identity; individuality; suffocation; and tombstone inscription.  The finality of no personal identity and no means for others to identify combines with the horror of the nothingness conveyed by the poem’s concluding dash.  

This commentary is by no means exhaustive but it should guide you towards developing a sustained critical response.  For more poetical features in Emily Dickinson’s poetry, please click my Dickinson main page.  

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