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Beauty & Truth

Part Four: Time and Eternity X

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.

Emily Dickinson, without doubt, earned her title as one of the Masters of Literature. From the hundreds of poems she wrote throughout her life, even if she stored them secret in her desk drawer, comes the life of poetry, the spirit of art, the inspiration of writing, and the eternal aspects of Beauty and Truth. “I died for beauty” is poem full of spiritual, artistic, and humanistic allegories which transcend time, space, and even death. Although there are many interpretations and analysis for this poem, the words contain a deeper meaning that will always reflect to the Reader a broader perspective. It is clear that Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886) could have been inspired by John Keats’ poem “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” which published anonymously in January 1820. Such poem, at the end, connects to the spiritual aspects of Beauty and Truth in the lines:

“When old age shall this generation waste, Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou sayst, “Beauty if Truth, Truth Beauty,” – that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

As you may see, it resembles to Emily Dickinson’s poem in reference to “old age” in symbolism to death, the eternity in how we “shalt remain, in midst of other woe,” the connection to a conversation in “a friend to man,” and the epic conclusion of Truth and Beauty. (Please feel free to read “Beauty is Truth” & “Truth Beauty” to expand the perspective about these important universal themes)

I DIED for beauty, but was scarce

Adjusted in the tomb,

When one who died for truth was lain

In an adjoining room.

In the poem, there seem to be two characters: I and He. If a reader interprets the “I” to be Emily Dickinson herself, then we would have a woman and a man. In the beginning, we would understand that: “She died for Beauty” and “He died for Truth.” For now . . . This interpretation opens the possibility to think that Emily presents them as the feminine and the masculine, the moon and the sun, the animas and the animus, the square the and the circle (from Da Vinci’s The Vitruvian Man) and if we take this symbolism further into philosophy, we can interpret it as Reason and Feelings, Logic and Intuition, or as Raphael’s School of Athens represents:

Truth as Apollo, God of Truth and Prophecy, Music, Poetry, Art, Medicine, Light and Knowledge Beauty as Athena, Goddess of Law and Justice, Mathematics, Civilization, Strength and Wisdom

As you may see, allegories in reference to universal themes like Beauty and Truth extend beyond the symbolisms we interpret throughout generations. However, let’s look at the details of the first stanza first.

I DIED for beauty, but was scarce

The word “for” can be interpreted as “in the cause of” as if, the “She” died for it; we will continue with this point further on. But for now, we understand that “She” gave her life for Beauty, but was scarce, insufficient, and then:

Adjusted in the tomb,

The word “Adjusted” has definition of something been “altered or moved in order to achieve a desired fit.” As if, the insufficiency was caused by something or someone which made her be in the tomb. The nature of this poem transmits an irony that such ideals for artists, poets, philosophers and prophets in regards of Beauty and Truth are never achieved because of forces that oppose to them. It would be common to link this analogy to many icons throughout civilizations and cultures that presented ideals in the name of “Beauty” and “Truth.” I have my own personal list in the religious, political and artistic spectrum; however, you might have another. Anyway, continuing in this first stanza, the other “character” died for Truth, in an adjoining room.

I DIED for beauty, but was scarce

Adjusted in the tomb,

When one who died for truth was lain

In an adjoining room.

Notice that Emily uses “When,” which causes the reader perceive that both died at the same time, one for Beauty and one for Truth. From the beginning, the writing starts building a relationship between the two. Within these letters, notice the irony Emily portrays when the one died for Beauty “was scarce” and the one who died for Truth “was lain.”

He questioned softly why I failed?

“For beauty,” I replied.

“And I for truth,—the two are one;

We brethren are,” he said.

Following the pronouns of the first stanza, the character “I” says she died for Beauty, and “he” died for Truth. Now, the first line of the second stanza can play a trick in the first person and third person point of view:

He questioned softly why I failed?

This sentence can be read as “He” is questioning the other character: “I,” to which “I” replies “For Beauty.” or This sentence can be read as “He” is questioning himself “Why I failed,” to which “I” replies: “For Beauty.” In this interpretation, the reason of the characters’ death can exchange, presenting the meaning of the same meaning of the stanza: ‘The two are one.’ However, this is only one interpretation due to the fact that the interrogation sign is not "necessary," unless you want to create this merging effect:

He questioned softly why I failed “For beauty,” I replied.

He questioned softly why I failed?

“For beauty,” I replied.

It is in the second stanza where the two participants are relating more deeply, as well as Truth and Beauty, which, as the poem suggests, two are one.

We brethren are,” he said.

The third stanza emphasizes on the ideals both participants died for, using “Brethren” and “Kinsmen” to express that they were both fighting for the same ideals.

And so, as kinsmen met a night,

We talked between the rooms,

Until the moss had reached our lips,

And covered up our names.

The characters were already dead, yet they kept on talking between rooms, which could be interpreted as ghosts, ghost from the past who fought for Beauty and for Truth; a tribute to icons whose knowledge and wisdom still resonates today, and whose words (in the theme of Beauty and Truth) still talk in the presence of the reader.

Until the moss had reached our lips,

And covered up our names.

Until nature, or the natural cycle of death (as the moss of the ground takes on the buried bodies) reached their lips, and covered up their names. The last line presents a theme of identity, which could be inclined to make the reader think that nature itself continues the cycle of life and death, regardless of who we are; however, it can also refer to the idea that even though they are kinsmen, fighting for Beauty and Truth, it does not matter who they are, who they were, what matters is what they lived for, what they died for. Many interpretations say Emily expresses her fear in the last stanza, in reference to how tragically we’d be forgotten through nature’s cycle, even if we fight with our lives for Beauty and Truth. However, that is a matter of opinion and interpretation; I don’t think Emily is expressing her fear just because there are many poems where she does not rely on her identity, and, with the fact that she left all her poems hidden in her desk drawer. To conclude, let me go back to the point where one died for Beauty, and one died for Truth, as if they were different, but yet, the same. “Beauty” can be naturally referred to the aesthetic of something beautiful, which gives pleasure; however, it is a subjective experience. Therefore, the phrase: ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ can be considered true, but perhaps not everybody would agree. When one perceives something beautiful, one can identify it as such by the subjective experience of it, why? Is there a way to see Beauty objectively? There are “synonyms” for Beauty which can expand the perspective of what has beauty and what has not. For instance, Grace is a virtue which can be much linked to Beauty, yet it depends on what kind of Grace we are focusing on. The “Sublime” is a certain kind of Beauty which is not fully understood or comprehended, yet it is not “Beauty” per se, but something more of grandeur, of power and meaning. Furthermore, taking this interpretation in the matter of Art, one can bring forth the question “How can you identify Beauty in Art? If the perception is subjective, why are there people who admire the same Beauty? Is there an objective angle “Beauty”? Perhaps . . . Now, take this as lightly as you wish: the spiritual aspect of Art lives inherent not only in the result or the process, but also in the experience of the creator. When an artist prepares a canvas to paint, a page to write, a music sheet to compose (etc) he/she delivers with his/her imagination, knowledge, experience, skill and/or talent the virtues of oneself. For example, if a painter wants to paint a castle which transmits fear to the viewer, the creator analyzes thousands of factors in order to create that “Beauty” which transmits whatever essence the creator is trying to present. However, that “essence” of fear can be portrayed with common parameters viewers can psychologically perceive as “fearful” or it can also be portrayed by the natural experience of “Expressing” fear in the process or/and experience of creating that Art. There are infinite ways to look at Art, and none is a right o wrong way to see it. However, to understand and comprehend our connection with the creation is to be more in tune with the creative process. The spiritual aspects of Art (for the creator) could be found in the process/experience of the creator itself, yet it does not mean the viewer will also find it in the result, or even in the process/experience. Hence, what we are dealing with here is Communication, the bridge between the pure and perfect vision of the Artist in his mind/heart/soul in regards to the essence presented and the perception of the viewer to receive it through what is presented (or even in the process) to define it as “Beauty.” Now, in the humanistic level of the beautiful, one can see the difference between the aesthetics of Beauty and the “soul” of Beauty. However, this is the subjective perception. For instance, a perfect balanced, clean and radiant pair of teeth can be defined as “Beautiful” in its aesthetics, yet it is truly the soul of a smile which radiates beauty, per se. It is in the combination of those two factors which transmit purely that “Beauty;” in one hand, there is the composition, the structure, technique, the symmetry and balance, the logic or reason (perhaps even the ‘Result’) and in the other hand, there is the soul, the intention, the purity, the heart and feeling of it (perhaps even the ‘Experience.’) Here is where I make my points in regards to harmony and balance between the objective mind and the subjective mind, the male and the female, the sun and the moon, the giving and the taking. Research had led me to understand that the more intensity the balance of the two opposite forces are cont