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13 May 2013

I died for beauty — but was scarce

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 — Themselves 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 —
                F448 (1862)  J449

The setting: a mausoleum with separate rooms. The narrator lies in one room, recently dead, but long enough so to have “Adjusted” herself when another body is laid in the next room. The recent arrival strikes up what is to be a very long conversation by provocatively asking his neighbor why she “failed.”
         Helen Vendler claims “failed” is used in the sense of “weaken and die,” as if the pursuits of beauty and truth compelled the seekers to efforts beyond their strength. One thinks of the poet or philosopher burning the midnight oil, scarcely eating, taking no heed for their personal wellbeing until their health failed. But now they have seemingly endless time to contemplate and discuss their two pursuits.
         The dialog between Truth and Beauty is meant to recall two poems from two of Dickinson’s favorite poets: John Keats and Elizabeth Barrett Browning. From the ending of Keats’ “On a Grecian Urn”:

 Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
Keats, according to Helen Vendler, in thinking about beauty would be considering “aesthetic creation and its product.” Truth would be “both philosophical and representational.” The Truth seeker, like Keats, comments that Truth and Beauty are “One.”
Browning takes a slightly different angle in “A Vision of Poets” where a poet is led by a Muse through trial and terror to a vision of great poets of the past whose foreheads were “royal with the truth”:

These were poets true,
Who died for Beauty, as martyrs do
For Truth — the ends being scarcely two.
A moss-covered family mausoleum

So while Keats says that truth and beauty are the same, Browning says it is the people, that the lives and deaths of poets and martyrs for truth are very similar. Both give up their lives. One remembers that Dickinson herself gave up her life, her potentially ‘normal’ life, that is, for poetry.

Dickinson’s Truth seeker takes both Keats and Browning’s positions: Truth and beauty are the same; consequently, the two of them, the two souls in the mausoleum, are “Brethren.” Beauty, note, makes no comment except that “as Kinsmen” they spoke together until the moss covered their names. Their “lips” would be, as in F210, the granite grave markers. Their conversation would have lasted at least a hundred years – probably much more!
        The two have an idealized and Platonic relationship, satisfying and comfortable unlike the frustrating relationships Dickinson experienced with many of the people she loved in her lifetime. Nonetheless, a wall separates the two. There will be no physical union or consummation here. Can Truth, one is led to ask, never completely be joined with Beauty?
        Perhaps, but Dickinson sets her scene in a mausoleum, typically a structure to contain the graves of family members. Although she may have simply meant that there were two graves side by side, I think it more likely that she is reinforcing the close kinship between the two. They share the same DNA.

The quiet end is terrible in a way despite its gentle peacefulness. As the moss spreads over bones and stones, it obliterates the separate identities through which the two souls communicated. It is a second death. Nothing fearful about it. The consciousness of the Beauty narrator continues to exist but it is in a diffused state. There is some sort of deep irony about the poem being a communication from that distant state. Perhaps it is a Truth about Beauty.

Another stanza from Browning’s poem also depicts the death of Poet/Beauty as peaceful:

Since sweet the death-clothes and the knell
Of him who having lived, dies well;
And wholly sweet the asphodel


  1. Beautiful essay. Thanks for the quotes from Browning. I will have to read more of her poetry.

  2. I've been happily reading your blog for some time now while trying to read an Emily Dickinson poem every night. But I don't see an entry for Johnson's #87! It's "A darting fear - a pomp - a tear -" Am I missing it somehow? Thanks for all your posts! :)

    1. Well, you sent me to my library on that poem. Apparently Franklin doesn't include it at all. It concludes a letter to a woman who had just moved with her professor husband and children to Chicago. After reading the letter and its poem I'm surprised Franklin doesn't include it. He does include other snippets from letters, after all. One thing I enjoyed in the letter was her comment that a Mr. S – the professor-husband's successor – "preached in our church last Sabbath upon 'predestination,' but I do not respect 'doctrines,' and did not listen to him... ."

  3. Thank you very much.Hope you are continuing this wonderful project.

  4. I've always thought of this poem in "conversation" with Keats
    Grecian urn poem. In fact imagine him as the one who died for Truth, as if the he and Emily are speaking "through" poetry in the tomb. Along these same lines, I appreciate your inclusion of EBB here. It's a conversation among poets. I also think of Shakespeare's lines too, which perhaps Keats was thinking of:

    Truth may seem but cannot be;
    Beauty brag but 'tis not she;
    Truth and beauty buried be.

    To this urn let those repair
    That are either true or fair;
    For these dead birds sigh a prayer.

    There is a pun here in "buried". Truth and Beauty are not easy to see. They are "buried" below the surface of things. Was Keats thinking of this "urn" when he wrote Ode on A Grecian Urn? Was Dickinson thinking of it? Browning?

    I wonder what kind of conversation that Shakespeare, Keats, Dickinson and Browning might have? "Pass the salt, Will."

    I think of "fail" here to mean something a bit different than Vendler's take, something to the effect of the ego (I) failing so that Truth and Beauty may prevail. I have a similar feeling about the "fail" at the end of "I heard a fly buzz"

    With Blue - uncertain - stumbling Buzz -
    Between the light - and me -
    And then the Windows failed - and then
    I could not see to see -

    With the failure of sight, there is nothing left in between.

    Finally, I'm taken with the ending of this poem, the idea of the moss reaching the lips and covering up the names. It's as if the words of the conversation turns into nature, as if that was, indeed, what they were speaking of all along, what they become, like Whitman becoming the grass under our boot-soles. I think of Keats again too, with the covering up of names, since he requested his name not be on his tombstone, but rather, "Here Lies One Whose Name Is Writ in Water".

  5. Thank you for all these thoughtful musings. I particularly like the Shakespeare poem. Having read it now I think it not unlikely that both Keats and Dickinson were thinking of it in their own explorations. And I was really struck by the Whitman comments -- and how Whitman-like this poem is beneath the syntax.

  6. Poems begin in the subconscious as seeds, later becoming a flowering plants. Here’s my guess about the seed of ‘I died for beauty’ (F448). Others have described the flowering plant.

    In ‘I died for beauty’, ED has “He” restate Keat’s “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”, telling her truth and beauty “are One”. ED doesn’t respond yay or nay, but the two of them spend “at least a hundred years – probably much more” (SK, explication) discussing the issue, talking “between the Rooms”, Puritan bundling boards preventing hanky-panky in the mausoleum. So much for meeting Wadsworth in Heaven.

    ED had offended Wadsworth with her questions about his Christian “truths”, and he is on record as having little patience for her poetry (beauty). Their relationship was never a match made in Heaven, but it was the source of many poetic seeds.