I died for Beauty —


This poem from Emily Dickinson gnaws at me. Is it a poem of despair or encouragement? And whose voices are these, anyway? My comments follow.

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 –

c. 1862

Emily Dickinson Poems, Edited by Brenda Hillman
Shambhala Pocket Classics, Shambhala 1995

“I died for Beauty….” Was this a literal death? No. It seems more like a dream. Emily is dead. Yet she doesn’t dwell on Death. Instead, she begins with that for which she died. Beauty.

Emily is in the Tomb. She didn’t get here on her own. Others laid her here. Adjustments have just been made (theirs of her body? hers to her new reality?), when she notices she has company.

Next to her, in the adjoining Room, she has a new neighbor. She recognizes “the One who died for Truth.” She knows he already died for Truth. How long ago was that? Is she surprised to find this One laid to rest in the Room next to hers? We don’t know.

The One who died for Truth initiates conversation with her. Not in a grand, authoritative voice, but softly. He wants to know why she failed. She says it was for Beauty.

He immediately acknowledges he failed for Truth, and declares the two are One—Beauty and Truth. Which makes them kin, brother and sister. Not enemies or strangers.

What does it mean to fail? Emily’s response seems to rule out her physical health failing and leading to death.

Perhaps this means failure after a long, valiant battle. Hers on behalf of Beauty; his on behalf of Truth. Not necessarily the end of the battle, but the end of what Emily and the One could do in their lifetimes.

Then again, I wonder whether these dead were silenced by the opposition because they didn’t like what they heard and saw in Emily and the One. At the least, perhaps they died of heartbreak or despair due to apathy about Beauty and Truth.

Perhaps. Yet here’s how I imagine it.

  • Emily failed because she was overcome by the power of Truth in Beauty. Truth found in natural Beauty, in all creation and all creatures great and small. Especially in those deemed small and less than great or good.
  • The One who already died failed because he was overcome by the power of Beauty in Truth. Beauty that dignifies all creation and all creatures great and small, reminding him of the One who created this world. Especially those deemed small and less than great or good.

Truth and Beauty are One. They aren’t many, and they aren’t at odds with each other. In fact, together they are so powerful that they can’t be silenced, even in these newly occupied Tombs.

And so the quiet, unrecorded conversation between Beauty and Truth goes on until the moss creeps up over the occupants’ Lips and, in a surprise ending, covers up their names, not just their Lips. A sign, perhaps, that Beauty and Truth have a mysterious life of their own.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 15 October 2016
Photo found at poetrygrrrl.com