I Died for Beauty by Emily Dickinson
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 – the two 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.
This essay was written by Janette Lloyd in October 2011
Many of Emily Dickinson’s works attempt to resolve very personal problems and were written in a heightened emotional state. Her poetry deals not only with the destructive forces of nature which lead to death, fear and the loss of self, but also with its converse; sensibility and human ecstasy. In some poems she shows a calm and civilised acceptance of death. She was also intensely aware of life, reacting to forces such as mountains, the sea, the night, flowers and thunderstorms with a mystical but child-like simplicity. At the same time her intellectual perception of these forces also reveals the beauty of their elemental form.
In I Died for Beauty she seemingly makes reference to the final stanza of John Keats’ 1812 Ode on a Grecian Urn—‘Beauty is truth, truth, beauty’. Andrew Motion (1997) sees this poem as an ‘inquiry into the function of art and of its relation to life.’ Motion comments that this ‘reminds us that art is simultaneously like life and unlike it. .Thus, Keats the poet, in loving beauty and truth….. must remain faithful to the world of experience rather than opt for a world of substitutes and abstractions.’
In contrast, there is a transcendent awareness of immortality in Emily Dickinson’s verses. The temporal seems less important than the life of the mind and spirit. Living confined, by choice, her room becomes her near tomb. Her art is at once obscure and eternal; she herself is of far less consequence. The consolation which she finds is what improves life.
Here she speaks of the devotion of her spirit to her art; that which is beautiful. The room in which she lies can be paralleled by her self-sacrifice for art – a living death. Her relationship with the mysterious ‘master’ figure is alluded to here. ’He’ is the one who dies for Truth. Lying in an adjacent grave, he manifests this other aspect of her art. Beauty and Truth together are able to transcend life’s pain and suffering. The encroaching moss speaks of the obscurity in which she led her life. It also alludes to the clandestine identity of her ‘master’ figure in this haunting and intriguing poem
Copyright Janette Lloyd