In this compact, short poem Emily Dickinson takes the reader into the afterlife and introduces, firstly, a person who died for Beauty, and secondly, a person who died for Truth.
How they died isn't known, isn't necessarily important. The fact that they died for an ideal is. This is their common ground - sacrifice for a concept.
It's interesting to note that Emily Dickinson admired the work of both William Shakespeare and John Keats, who wrote poems on this very theme: Truth and Beauty.
Some scholars have suggested that Dickinson's poem is in response to the penultimate stanza from Shakespeare's The Phoenix and the Turtle:
Truth may seem but cannot be;
Beauty brag but 'tis not she;
Truth and beauty buried be.
And could also have been inspired by the last two lines of Keats's Ode to a Grecian Urn:
Beauty is truth, truth beauty,- that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
So Dickinson's deceased pair are in agreement with both Shakespeare and Keats, pretty good company in the afterlife.
What strikes the reader in the first couple of lines is the immediacy of the scene, the fresh declaration of the first speaker, perhaps only recently acclimatised, if at all. And the awareness that, within a short span, a second person arrives next door so to speak.
Both have paid the ultimate price - how heroic, how perfect - and are now entering a new phase of their lives: death.
This newcomer, the second speaker, is a male and wants to know how come his new neighbour 'failed'? Such an unusual word to use for 'died.' If a person fails the suggestion is that they somehow didn't quite make the grade in life, or died too young, or in suspicious circumstances.
There are no details, there is only death within Beauty and Truth, and the knowledge, post mortem, that these two ideals are one. This is thoroughly romantic, gothic and not quite macabre. The two newly entombed do not dance but they do accept their fates as (bloodless) bretheren, brethren, brothers.
Communicating through what must be a surreal, endless/timeless, Alice-in-Wonderland type of night, the two are destined to remain anonymous as the moss grows up to their lips and over their tombs.
Mother Nature is taking back what she demands, in her own time, leaving the two figures of Beauty and Truth to natural ends, never knowing that they live on in the minds of the reader.
Dickinson - I died for beauty - Emily Dickinson
Socrates and Plato extolled the virtue of aesthetic beauty as transcendent – inspiring people to aspire towards godliness, while ugliness was descendent, dragging people down towards evil and Hell. Most Philosophers and artists assume that all art aspires towards the beautiful. It is through the celebration of beauty that we can escape the tawdry, the banality of ordinary pedestrian life.
Yet we must distinguish between physical and spiritual beauty. Many physically beautiful people may have ugly spirits while not so good looking people have beautiful dispositions. Susan Sontag suggests:
Unfortunately, moral beauty in art, like physical beauty in a person, is extremely perishable. It is nowhere so durable as artistic or intellectual beauty. Moral beauty has a tendency to decay very rapidly into sententiousness or un-timeliness. -
Dickinson was fascinated by John Keats, so it is very likely she was influenced by his Ode to a Grecian Urn– a celebration of beauty and our desperate attempts to pursue it relentlessly.
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, - that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
The engraving on the urn depicts a stripling athlete pursuing a beautiful nude maiden – an example of impossible dreams – the youth has been chasing her for thousands of year without success. Yet it is the striving after beauty that makes us better human beings.
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.
The poet fantasises about death; laid out in a tomb – a mausoleum with separate rooms – even in death she envisions isolation. Archetypically, tombs can represent feminine or concave images like wombs, ponds, wells….receptive enclosures promising nurturing and security.
Dickinson acknowledges that those who strive for goodness or crusade for righteous causes generally are defeated by death – the good die young. Those who attempt to right the wrongs of society like Robin Hood, gunmen of the wild west, or private eyes, tend to become maverick loners rarely accepted by mainstream people. Leaders who care for the common man like Julius Caesar, Jesus Christ, Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King or Gough Whitlam are generally crucified literally or figuratively for their efforts.
Recently, Freya Newman, a 21-year-old communications student from the University of Technology, Sydney, faced up to two years’ jail after being charged over computer hacking that led to student records about a $60,000 scholarship granted to Tony Abbott’s daughter, Frances, being leaked to the online magazine New Matilda. Those who stand up for truth – die young.
The word “failure” has a multiplicity of possible meanings in this context. Their “failure” is life’s ultimate defeat - death. Alternatively “failure” represents the futility of all human endeavour for good; it results in martyrdom. “Failure” is also a personal stumbling, an imperfection or shortcoming. Both seem to accept that their deaths are “failures”.
As in “a narrow fellow in the grass” Dickinson assumes a masculine voice or persona indicated in “brethren”, and “kinsmen”.
In her dream they talk – communicate – an attempt to fill a void but then the dream turns into a nightmare where she realises the only living thing in the poem – the moss reaches their lips and covers their names. This is her ultimate fear – that she will lose her ability to communicate and her legacy will be forgotten. Her life will have been for nothing and her name obliterated.
References to death – Death is a prominent pre-occupation with Dickinson that many feel makes her poetry repellently morbid. “Called back” and “At home” were the two phrases carved on her tombstone. We today are sheltered and cosseted from death. Not many have even seen a corpse, as the dead are immediately covered up by a blanket or a body bag and transported to a morgue or funeral parlour. Few funerals have open caskets.
Dickinson would have experienced much more exposure to death, especially during and after the carnage of the Civil War (1860 – 63) when best practice had two thousand soldiers on either side march towards each other and when commanded take position and begin shooting at each other. The side with the last standing soldier was declared the winner.
The later years of Dickinson's life were primarily spent in mourning because of several deaths within the time frame of a few years. Emily's father died in 1874, Samuel Bowles died in 1878, J.G. Holland died in 1881, her nephew Gilbert died in 1883, and both Charles Wadsworth and Emily's mother died in 1882. Over those few years, many of the most influential and precious friendships of Emily's passed away, and that gave way to the more concentrated obsession with death in her poetry. On June 14, 1884 Emily's obsessions and poetic speculations started to come to a stop when she suffered the first attack of her terminal illness. Throughout the year of 1885, Emily was confined to bed in her family's house where she had lived her entire life, and on May 15, 1886 Emily took her last breath at the age of 56. Lyndall Gordon
Dickinson appears to long for death as a release.
As in “This is my letter to the world”, Dickinson has a need for posterity to recognise her achievement.
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