“I died for Beauty, but was scarce” by Emily Dickinson – Analysis and Poem

Synopsis

“I died for Beauty, but was scarce” is a poem in which the speaker is dead. The speaker says she died for her beauty, but that beauty is not common. The speaker then says a man who died for truth is then laid to rest in a room across the way. The man asks the woman why she failed, she replies “for beauty”. The man says they are family. The two then talk until “moss reached [their] lips, / And covered up [their] names.”

Analysis

Like much of Dickinson’s work, this poem is written using iambic tetrameter (four feet) and iambic trimeter (three feet). This poem is loosely based on John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” where Keats states “Beauty is Truth, Truth is Beauty”. He is referring to inner beauty, as is this poem.

The first stanza states inner beauty is a rare thing and the speaker died for it. A person who died because they sought inner beauty and a man who sought truth are lain next to each other. The second stanza focuses on the man stating inner beauty and truth are the same thing. The third stanza says the two talked for eternity.

This poem is a look at how uncommon inner beauty and truth are and how we sometimes sacrifice ourselves and our lives to keep our morality. Lying is easy. Being fake is easy, but being true to ourselves and to those around us is difficult, as is being a kind, gentle, and overall good human being. Truth and morality are nearly the same and are “best friends”.

Poem: “I died for beauty, but was scarce” 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.

Reader’s Reaction

This poem is perhaps one of Dickinson’s more famous writings. I read once that this poem can be interpreted to mean she is wanting a platonic friendship. I just don’t see that, though. She is far too deep in the “inner beauty” and “truth” part that she almost seems like she was upset when she wrote this. Maybe she had a fight with her boyfriend or family because she was being truthful about something or was being kind to someone who is always mean to her and thus feels like she sacrificed herself in order to do so. Whatever it is, though, I doubt she is longing for some sort of friendship out of this. Another interpretation could be that she sees herself as having “inner beauty” and wants to find a truthful man. Or maybe she means that she already did find the truthful man and she is wanting to be with him for eternity. There are many ways poetry can be interpreted, and Dickinson’s work is no different.

Dickinson was a recluse, but she did have relationships (but never married). It is sometimes suggested that perhaps she was a lesbian or bisexual. But who knows? I don’t think it matters, really. We don’t know too much about her relationships other than she had close friends and colleagues and she felt like she was in love several times throughout her life (and seemed to long to be with certain men, at least that’s what her poems suggest). I’d say that if we are looking at the relationship angle of this poem, that she was broken hearted due to her having “too much inner beauty” but then she met a truthful man and she is now happy talking to him for long periods of time.

Gary R. Hess

Gary was born and raised on a small farm in rural Kansas. Today, he is teaching various nationalities English in Southeast Asia.

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