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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 bret