I Died for Beauty
I Died for Beauty
Emily Dickinson's poem “I Died for Beauty” is an allegorical work that depicts someone who died for beauty interacting briefly with someone who died for truth. An is a metaphorical work in which the characters and actions represent larger ideas or themes. Often in an allegory, abstract ideas are given physical form, as they are in Dickinson's poem. The poem equates the two as equally noble martyrs whose names are eventually covered with moss, as if to indicate that in the end, what one dies for is unimportant. Although is it uncertain when this poem was written, it is typical of Dickinson's work in its style, length, and content. It is a seemingly simple and straightforward poem that reveals deeper meaning with analysis. The length is only three quatrains (four-line stanzas), and the themes of death, beauty, and truth are frequent in her work.
Unlike most poets, Dickinson did not write with the intent of making a career as a poet. She kept most of her work private, which is why her poems often have a circa date indicating approximately when they were written. After her death, however, her sister enlisted a trusted editor to help get the poetry in publishable form. Because of these circumstances, the dates when Dickinson's work was published vastly differ from the dates when they were written. “I Died for Beauty” was written around 1862 and was first published in 1890. Editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson published the poem in a September issue of the Christian Union. Since then it has
been published repeatedly. Today, it is a popular and widely anthologized poem that is collected in virtually every volume of Dickinson's poems, as well as in other anthologies of American literature or poetry. Specifically, the poem appears in the only comprehensive edition of the works of Dickinson, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, published by Back Bay Books in 1976.
Emily Dickinson was born on December 10, 1830, in Amherst, Massachusetts, to a young lawyer named Edward and his wife, Emily (Norcross). Dickinson had an older brother named William Austin and a younger sister named Lavinia, or “Vinnie.” Edward became a successful politician who was known for being active in his community. His father had been a major force in the founding of Amherst College, and Edward often hosted and entertained visiting guests and lecturers, including Ralph Waldo Emerson. Less is known about Mrs. Dickinson, but many agree that she retained a love of learning, particularly in the sciences, for most of her life.
The Dickinson children attended Amherst Academy after completing their studies in a local one-room school. Dickinson was an enthusiastic student, and she seized the chance to attend college-level lectures while still at the Academy. Young women of the time enjoyed this educational season in their lives, where they grew their intellects and imaginations before settling into domestic lives. Dickinson certainly thrived. In addition to Milton, Emerson, and Thoreau, she embraced the writings of Emily and Charlotte Brontë, Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot, Charles Darwin, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Matthew Arnold. As Dickinson's friends began to marry and start their own lives, she delved deeper into her books.
When Dickinson completed studies at Amherst Academy, she continued her education at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in nearby South Hadley. Although Dickinson had a strong sense of herself as a spiritual young woman, seminary authorities regarded her as hopeless. This was probably because some of her independent religious views flew in the face of the prevailing Calvinistic Puritanism. Dickinson left the seminary after only a year of study, raising eyebrows and questions. Whatever the reason, she returned to her parents' home and began her slow retreat from society. She generally stayed close to home, but entertained guests and maintained a few close relationships. At home, Dickinson had little interest in domestic work. She was content to pursue her own interests, such as writing and gardening.
Austin married Susan Gilbert, to Dickinson's delight. Susan had been a family friend since childhood, and she and Dickinson were good friends. Dickinson also corresponded with editors Samuel Bowles and Josiah Holland, literary figure Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and pastor Charles Wadsworth.
Between the late 1850s and 1865, Dickinson wrote as many as 1,100 poems. Then she began to have serious problems with her eyesight followed by devastating losses in the 1870s and 1880s. Edward died in 1874; Mrs. Dickinson suffered a stroke in 1875; Wadsworth and Mrs. Dickinson both died in 1882; and an eight-year-old nephew Dickinson held especially close to her heart died from typhoid fever in 1883.
A schism that seemed already to be forming was made worse with the arrival of Mabel Loomis Todd in 1881. A friend of Susan's, Todd was married to a professor at Amherst College. Dickinson is said never to have met her in person; she hid and eavesdropped when Todd came to visit Vinnie. But the next year, Todd began a love affair with Austin that lasted the rest of his life. Its openness created a great deal of tension among family members.
Dickinson suffered from an inflammation of the kidneys known as nephritis and died in Amherst on May 15, 1886. Despite having published seven poems in her lifetime, she asked Vinnie to burn her writings. Vinnie destroyed personal letters but preserved the poetry. It was Vinnie who pursued posthumous publication for Dickinson's poetry.
In 1890, Dickinson's first collection of poetry was published to great acclaim. Among the many now-popular poems was “I Died for Beauty,” which was likely written around 1862. The first edition (500 copies) sold out in only a few weeks. Remarkably, it was printed in eleven editions in only two years. In editing early volumes, Todd and Higginson aggressively edited Dickinson's unusual style to make it more accessible. Later publications, however, presented the poems in their original style and with the original punctuation.
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”? 5
“For Beauty”, I replied—
“And I—for Truth—Themself are One—
We Brethren, are”, He said—
And so, as Kinsmen, met a Night—
We talked between the Rooms— 10
Until the Moss had reached our lips—
And covered up—our names—
“I Died for Beauty” is told in the first person by someone who recently died “for Beauty.” Each stanza is only four lines long, and in the first, the speaker introduces herself and goes right into the narrative. Readers may note that the poem begins with an image of Beauty being attended to by loved ones. She is not alone, as she is adjusted in the tomb. She seems to have been someone who was loved and has been respected with a proper burial. But just as she is left alone, she receives company. The speaker says she was just put in her tomb when another recently deceased person is brought into “an adjoining room,” having died for truth.
Sensing her presence, he addresses her softly. This suggests that he is apprehensive, afraid, or sensitive to what might be a painful topic for her. Given that he died for truth, he is not afraid of her answer, but might fear upsetting her. He was also brought in by others and has now been left, so he likely takes some comfort in the realization that he is not alone. He asks the speaker how she died, and she answers simply: “For Beauty.” He responds by telling her that he died for truth, making them brethren. The two share an immediate kinship and mutual understanding. They have both given their lives on the altar of principle, and so they respect and identify with one another. As she did at the end of the first stanza, Dickinson ends this stanza with a hyphen. This essentially trails off the action and emotion of one stanza and leads the reader right into the next without the need for setting up anything new.
The speaker refers to the two of them now as “kinsmen” although they just met.Their deaths for noble causes make them spiritually akin. Dickinson relates the friendship with something the reader may have experienced—striking up a kinship with someone one evening. The one who died for Beauty and the one who died for truth talk across their rooms as long as they could. The image is familiar; new relationships have enthusiasm and energy, and two new friends do not run out of things to discuss or learn about one another. This is what the two buried people experience, and the juxtaposition of the setting with the friendly interaction of the two (who are in reality corpses) is typical of Dickinson's work. The scene is macabre, but the reader almost forgets until Dickinson describes why the two stop talking. She says that they talk “between the rooms” for as long as they can. But when their physical selves are no longer able to speak (“Until the moss had reached our lips”), they go silent. The reader is abruptly reminded that the two characters in this allegory of Beauty and Truth are dead bodies. The grim reality of decay (and probably rigor mortis, which stiffens dead bodies) beings the cheerful kinship to a halt. The moss reaches their lips so they can no longer talk to one another. More broadly, the decay ends their ability to speak out on behalf of Beauty or Truth. The lips, which represent communication, expression, and relationship, go mute. They are silenced by the natural cycle of life and death. The speaker concludes with the image of the moss covering their names, apparently rendering them forgotten and anonymous. Not only does the moss cover the bodies' mouths, but it in effect erases the memories of those who are buried there. Their to-the-death stands for Beauty and Truth are forgotten (except for the poem), and the reader is left wondering for what did they really die? Were their deaths in vain? Without knowing the specifics of their individual deaths, it is impossible to say. It is, however, possible to conclude that even such great principles as beauty and truth are subject to the ravages of time.
Beauty and Truth
“I Died for Beauty” deals very directly with the themes of beauty and truth. Dickinson portrays them as parallel in various ways. Both are represented by someone who died for them; both are buried in the same tomb near each other; both die and decay at around the same time; and both names are covered by the same moss. Further, the figures themselves feel an immediate bond when they each learn why the other died. The poem makes a strong and overt statement that beauty and truth are “brethren” and “kinsmen.” Further, the two recognize one another as being kindred spirits.
An interesting point of interpretation is whether Dickinson means that the two figures died as martyrs for beauty and truth, or that the two figures died in order to attain beauty and truth. The phrasing “I died for beauty” and “And I for truth” leaves the door open to either interpretation. Regardless, the two figures felt strongly enough about them that their human lives were less valuable than beauty and truth.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Read John Keats's “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Do you find any relevant comments or parallels to “I Died for Beauty”? Write an essay comparing and contrasting these two poems. Add concluding remarks about the universal themes addressed by these two poets.
- Which is more worth dying for: beauty or truth? Stage a debate with a fellow student in which one of you takes the position that dying for beauty is nobler, while the other takes the position that dying for truth is nobler. Look for historical examples to strengthen your arguments. Have a three-person panel act as judges to determine who wins the debate.
- Read more about Dickinson's life and work. Although relatively little is known about her, try to get a sense of what kind of person she probably was. Write an introduction to a book of her poetry as if it was written by her and recently discovered among her letters. What do you think she would have wanted readers to know about her work? Be sure to include a few comments about “I Died for Beauty.”
- Many students find that works of literature are more relatable when there is a visual component. Pretend you are a guest speaker to a group of college freshman art students. You want them to connect with literature in a way that is meaningful to them, so you collect five works of art that help bring “I Died for Beauty” to life. Using any format you like (slide show, packet handout, framed copies of the works), prepare a twenty-minute presentation that shows them how art and literature can complement each other.
Death and Mortality
“I Died for Beauty” takes place entirely inside a tomb. The speaker describes being placed in the tomb when another is placed in a nearby room within the tomb. There is hardly a stronger sense of death than such a setting. So everything about the poem must be considered within the context of death. The two figures have died and are now dealing with that reality, although they seem very content about it. They were aware of their own mortality when they gave their lives for the greater goods of beauty and truth. The poem takes an interesting twist, however, when the notion that beauty and truth are immortal comes into question. Initially, it seems that the figures have sacrificed their mortal lives for something that transcends death, namely beauty and truth. But in the end when the figures are rendered silent, and their names covered with moss, the reader must wonder if those things for which they died are also mortal.
In typical Dickinson fashion, this poem about noble deaths and the process of dying also comments about something as ordinary and cheerful as friendship. In this case, the speaker (who died for Beauty) befriends a newcomer to her tomb who died for Truth. Both are placed in the tomb and then left, but they are not lonely for long when they realize that not only do they have each other, but that they have quite a lot in common. Dickinson demonstrates how easily some friendships form and the enthusiasm with which new friends engage each other. In this case, the two are bonded by their willingness to die for what they agree is the same thing (Beauty and Truth), but they are also bonded by their astonishing circumstances. Dickinson illustrates how a friendly relationship has the power to make even the most unusual and potentially frightening situation (such as being laid to rest in a tomb) seem pleasant. However, like most friendships, this one is eventually broken up by the passing of time. Although the poem ends on a melancholy note, the reader can not help but feel that the transition from life to death was made much easier by having formed one last meaningful friendship before passing on to eternity.
An allegory is a type of extended metaphor in which elements of the narrative (such as characters or events) represent something beyond what is immediately apparent. Just as any metaphor is a way of comparing two or more things for the sake of commenting on one of them, an allegory applies the same concept to a narrative. In “I Died for Beauty,” Dickinson uses this form of metaphor to comment on beauty and truth. The narrative describes the bodies of those who died for beauty and truth being laid to rest in the same tomb, in adjoining rooms. They speak and become “brethren” right away, based on the fact that they both died for essentially the same purpose (“the two are one”). The two figures are personified versions of the things for which they gave their lives, and death is the sacrifice for a greater good. That the two figures died for beauty and truth demonstrates the lengths to which they would go in service of something they regarded as greater than themselves.
Initially, the transcendence of beauty and truth is represented in the fact that the two figures are still aware and speaking, even though they are dead. The reader sees this as a comment, through a picture presented by Dickinson, that these things are immortal. However, the allegory continues by showing the figures eventually succumbing to physical decay, as their names are covered by moss. Because the language and visual presentation is allegorical, the reader is led to wonder what Dickinson is trying to say about the ultimate fate of beauty and truth. But with her speakers rendered silent, the reader is left to draw his or her own conclusions.
Dickinson's poetry is characteristically formal in style and regular in structure and rhythm. “I Died for Beauty” is a perfect example of her regularity of style. The poem is written in three four-line stanzas, all with a rhyme scheme of abcb, with the b rhymes being near rhymes; in this poem, they are more specifically consonance rhymes because the near-rhyming words are on the same stress and end with the same consonants. The lines for every stanza follow a regular pattern of iambic tetrameter, iambic trimeter, iambic tetrameter, and iambic trimeter. This adherence to style and structure reflects Dickinson's education at Amherst Academy and her ability to tell the story and make her comments within these limitations. Writing in this way requires a particular ability to form lines and use economy of words. From a reader's perspective, the poem has a natural and comfortable feel that makes the poem more accessible. The regular rhythm also frees the reader to focus on the narrative and the subtleties of the imagery rather than be tripped up in unusual or jolting patterns.
Realistic Period in American Literature
Although the year of Dickinson's birth, 1830, was also the year that the Romantic Period in American literature began, Dickinson is associated with the Realistic Period in American literature, which lasted from 1865 to 1900. Where the Romantic Period yielded writing that was optimistic, exalted, hopeful, and at times self-consciously literary, the Realistic Period emerged from a nation struggling after the Civil War and facing economic, industrial, and intellectual change. Because she kept to herself and did not interact with many writers of her day, Dickinson did not set out to become a Realistic writer. She was the product of her time, place, and personality. The Realistic writers were less idealistic than their Romantic predecessors, and they were willing to both look at, and write about, struggle on a collective or individual level. The work of writers like Charles Darwin, Karl Marx, and Auguste Comte were coming more into mainstream thought. Science challenged religion more directly, something that Dickinson understood.
COMPARE & CONTRAST
1862: Dickinson has only had about four of her poems published, one in an Amherst College publication and the other three (including “I Taste a Liquor Never Brewed” and “Safe in Their Alabaster Chambers”) in the Springfield Republican newspaper. Tucked away in her room, however, are volumes of the poetry that she has written over the years.
Today: Dickinson is one of the most anthologized American poets, studied at virtually every educational level. Dickinson's writing is an ongoing subject of research and analytical papers by literary scholars. Numerous volumes of her poems exist, along with collections of letters, biographies, and scholarly books. Dickinson has taken her place alongside the giants of American poetry, including Robert Frost and Walt Whitman. To many, she is the predominant female voice in the canon of American poetry.
1862: Susan B. Anthony and other suffragettes (women activists who fought for voting rights) participate in political activism with the goal of gaining more equal rights for women. Voting, property ownership, and legal standing are among the top issues of the day. Although Dickinson was not a political activist, she is considered by some historians as having feminist leanings because of her individualism and unwillingness to assume a domestic role that did not interest or suit her.
Today: Women enjoy the same rights as men and continue to organize themselves for causes specific to women and their position in society. Prestigious women abound. Ruth Bader Ginsberg is a Supreme Court justice; Nancy Pelosi is the Speaker of the House, and Condoleeza Rice is the National Security Advisor; Oprah Winfrey is one of the most influential media figures; J. K. Rowling is one of the most wealthy and successful authors in the world; and Margaret Whitman is President of eBay. Equal pay, maternity leave, and abortion rights are among the top issues of the day.
1862: People communicate with each other through letters, just as Dickinson did. Much history from this time period is preserved in letters and journals, as such forms of writing were very common.
Today: Very few people write letters anymore. Email, cell phones, and text messaging are the primary means of communication. Because these forms of communication are fleeting, little of day-to-day communication is preserved.
Literary writers were transitioning to the new way of thinking, and new voices rose from the Realistic Period. Authors, poets, and playwrights approached subjects with the intent to present them with more fidelity so that their works would be relevant to their audiences. They left the job of interpretation to the audience or reader. In A Handbook to Literature, editors William Harmon and Hugh Holman note that amidst a number of imitators of Romantic poetry during the Realistic Period were “three new and authentic poetic voices … [Walt] Whitman's, [Sidney] Lanier's, and [Emily] Dickinson's.” Novelists wrote in style and content about growing disillusionment and cynicism. While some of the novelists were harsh and serious, others, such as Mark Twain, adopted the same perspective in a humorous way.
Women in 1860s America
In 1860s Amherst, where Dickinson lived with her family, women had clearly defined roles and expectations within the home and the community. They were encouraged to attend school and learn about literature, philosophy, mathematics, history, and even science, but they were not expected to build careers on their educations. During the late teens, men's and women's educational paths diverged as men launched their careers or went to seminary, law school, or other professional schools. This was the case with the Dickinson children. While Austin advanced to law school, his sisters finished at Amherst Academy and then attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. Women's education was taken seriously at this time in history, as evidenced by the establishment of schools like Mount Holyoke, which opened as a seminary for women in 1837. In the next three decades, more colleges for women were founded—Vassar Female College was chartered in 1861 and opened after the end of the Civil War, Smith College was chartered in 1871, and Wellesley College opened in 1875.
Once young women completed their schooling or got married, they assumed their duties at home. As wives and mothers, their duties included all housework, child rearing, and entertaining. The social network was vibrant and important, and hosting visitors and gatherings was part of the woman's responsibilities to her family. Women who did not marry (such as Dickinson and her sister, Vinnie) returned to their parents' homes, where they took on many of the same domestic duties as married women. They were expected to set aside their personal interests in favor of contributing to the smooth running of the household.
Many biographers have commented that Dickinson's fascination with death was revealed in her letters. In them, she asks correspondents to describe what it was like to witness a person dying; she wanted to know about their final hours, their presence of mind, and whether or not they felt peaceful. All of this interest, imagination, and detail is poured into her poetry, as noted by Paula Hendrickson in Dickinson Studies. “I Died for Beauty” portrays two people who have died, and what transpires after their burial. While it does not speak to the experience of death itself, it does portray a peaceful resignation to death, and it comments on the fleeting nature of human purpose.
During Dickinson's life, only seven of her poems were published. After her death in 1886, her sister, Lavinia (“Vinnie”), set about gathering all of the poems Dickinson had written and pursuing publication for them. The first volume of Dickinson's poetry was published in 1890 to great acclaim, and “I Died for Beauty” was among them. In a review from 1890, a writer for Critic praises the volume as “striking and original,” adding that its “main quality … is an extraordinary grasp and insight.” Modern readers must remember how unusual Dickinson's poems were to her contemporaries, yet many critics embraced them at once. The reviewer for Critic concludes: “Miss Dickinson's poems, though rough and rugged, are surprisingly individual and genuinely inspired.” Another 1890 review, this one from the Nation, describes Dickinson's poems as “simply extraordinary, and strike notes, very often, like those of some deep-toned organ.” Similar praise comes from James Reeves in his much more recent (1994) contribution to Reference Guide to American Literature, who claims that “nothing that she wrote is without interest.” Singling out “I Died for Beauty,” the reviewer for the Nation characterizes the poem as having a “Blake-like quality.” The critic adds: “The extraordinary terseness and vigor of that weird conclusion runs through all the poems.” Reeves regards Dickinson's offbeat style as distinctive, purposeful, and consistent; he explains that “the idiosyncratic vision of which we are speaking is not evident only intermittently, in this image or that turn of phrase, but informs every line, so that despite their differences Dickinson's poems are always unmistakably hers.”
One of the great literary critics of the 1950s was John Crowe Ransom, whose poetry and criticism is still studied today. He notes that, like “I Died for Beauty,” most of Dickinson's poems are written in the first person, but he explains why this does not always mean that they are about Dickinson herself. He writes:
If the poems are not autobiographical in the usual sense of following actual experience—and it is not likely that they do … then they are autobiographical in the special sense of being true to an imagined experience, and that will be according to the dominant or total image which the artist proposes to make up for herself.
In determining Dickinson's place in the American literary tradition, he not only agrees that she holds a position of importance, but he goes so far as to declare: “Whitman and Emily Dickinson were surely the greatest forces of American poetry in the nineteenth century, and both had found their proper masks.” Reeves wholeheartedly believes that Dickinson is among the great writers in the English language. He boldly states: “Not all poets have recognized the exceptional resources of this [English] vocabulary, but the greatest, of whom Chaucer and Shakespeare are the preeminent examples, have undoubtedly done so. Dickinson, as a close reading of her poems will confirm, is to be counted among their number.”
Jennifer A. Bussey
Bussey is an independent writer specializing in literature. In the following essay, she looks at a number of Dickinson's poems to place the poet's treatment of beauty and truth in “I Died for Beauty” in a larger context.
Emily Dickinson visited and revisited some of the same themes over the course of her prolific life. In all, Dickinson wrote more than 1,700 poems. She often writes about nature, life, and death; in fact, her poetry so strongly falls into thematic categories that the original 1890 collection of her poetry organizes her poems in the following chapters: Life, Nature, Love, and Time and Eternity. Dickinson is known for her preoccupation with death and her tendency at times to slip into the macabre in her treatments of this theme. Dickinson seems to be so comfortable with her own mortality that she thinks about death in unusual ways, and often in great detail. She writes about the moment of death, the presence of death, and tombs. In “I Died for Beauty,” Dickinson adopts a first-person approach to her narrative set in a tomb. It tells of a conversation between two newly-entombed figures.
In “I Died for Beauty” the speaker declares that she died for beauty, and as she was placed in her tomb, another person is placed in a nearby room. She talks to him, and when they discover that she died for beauty and he died for truth, they feel an immediate kinship. Dickinson creates strong parallels in the poem between beauty and truth. The two seem delighted to have met each other, and they talk until death ultimately renders them silent. No longer can they communicate with each other or have an effect on the world, although Dickinson gives no indication of their moving on to the afterlife. In the last lines of the poem, the same moss that covers their lips (a very physical image of death) also covers their names on the tombstone. In the end, they are mute and apparently forgotten. This allegorical poem makes strong statements about beauty, truth, death, and impermanence. There are two ways to interpret “for”—the speaker may have died in the service of or as a sacrifice for beauty, or she may have died in order to attain beauty.
Dickinson writes about beauty in a handful of other poems, and these may give insight into how the poet understood and valued beauty. In one poem, she states: “To tell the beauty would decrease, / To state the Spell demean” This simply means that explaining why something is beautiful takes away from its beauty. The idea is akin to the literary concept of the heresy of the paraphrase, which contends that literature and art lose something when paraphrased or presented in any other way than the way the artist intended. This is precisely the idea Dickinson puts forth with regard to beauty; it is obvious to those who can see it and it suffers from being analyzed or broken down into elements.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
- Emily Dickinson: Selected Letters (2006) was edited by Dickinson scholar Thomas H. Johnson. Dickinson maintained correspondence with a wide variety of people from family members to literary experts. Her letters demonstrate her acute writing ability, and her tendency to slip into poetry, even when writing prose in a letter.
- Daniel Lombardo's Amherst and Hadley: Through the Seasons (1998) is a collection of photographs, stories, and history regarding the two towns of Amherst and Hadley, Massachusetts. Lombardo pays special attention to the importance of the season's cycles as they related to the towns and the lives of their citizens in the past. Places that figured into Dickinson's life, including Amherst College, are featured.
- Edited by Wendy Martin, The Cambridge Companion to Emily Dickinson (2002) is indispensable to the high school or undergraduate student of American literature. Fourteen essays from respected scholars around the world are collected in this volume.
- Richard B. Sewall's The Life of Emily Dickinson (1998) is a National Book Award-winning biography. Sewall's book is very detailed and gets to the heart of the woman, her poetry, and how she achieved her unique and enduring voice.
In another four-line poem, Dickinson writes: “So gay a flower bereaved the mind / As if it were a woe, / Is Beauty an affliction, then? / Tradition ought to know.” In these short lines, Dickinson tells of a flower so beautiful that it is painful to look at it. Beauty, therefore, can be full of grief “as if it were a woe.” Dickinson juxtaposes the beauty and the onlooker's reaction, which leads naturally to the question: “Is Beauty an affliction, then?” She wonders if beauty is less the joy people believe it to be, and is instead burdensome. Her answer is inconclusive and likely unsatisfying to many readers: “Tradition ought to know.” In other words, only life experience and the past can answer that question. Perhaps the answer is different for different people.
The last example of a poem dealing with beauty is the most relevant to “I Died for Beauty.” It is another four-line poem, but it addresses both beauty and death. Dickinson writes: “Beauty crowds me till I die, / Beauty, mercy have on me! / But if I expire today, / Let it be in sight of thee.” The first two lines characterize beauty as invasive, unwelcome, and unkind. It is unrelenting, crowding the speaker right up until the moment of her death, despite her begging for mercy. This image offers a clear answer to the prior poem's question: “Is Beauty an affliction, then?” For this speaker, the answer is a resounding yes, although the manifestation of beauty is unclear. In the last half of the poem, however, she admits to having a need for beauty. She asks beauty not to leave her if she dies today. The speaker wants to die “in sight of” beauty. The speaker clearly has intense feelings about beauty, and those feelings figure prominently in her anticipation of death.
Taken collectively, these three poems characterize beauty as simultaneously indefinable, burdensome, intrusive, and comforting. Dickinson seems to have had a very complicated understanding of beauty, and these poems suggest a woman struggling with the issue of true beauty and its meaning. She does not, however, indicate that it is a great good that is worth taking up as a cause and sacrificing one's life for.
What about truth, the other figure in “I Died for Beauty”? What do Dickinson's other poems say about it? There are only a few other poems that address the subject, but they provide a consistent perspective. In one, Dickinson describes a man who is essentially a loudmouth. Dickinson writes: “He preached upon ‘breadth’ till it argued him narrow,— / The broad are too broad to define: / And of ‘truth’ until it proclaimed him a liar,— / The truth never flaunted a sign.
In these lines, Dickinson illustrates the enduring nature of breadth and truth. Both are able to overcome the efforts by one man to discuss them, and the antithetical outcome is that breadth makes the man narrow, and truth makes him a liar. What Dickinson tells the reader about truth is that it transcends human manipulation, logic, or understanding. It remains steadfast and consistent, regardless of what anyone says about it. It ultimately holds power over those who try to take power from it. In another poem describing truth, Dickinson writes: “There's triumph of the finer mind / When truth, affronted long, / Advances calm to her supreme, / Her God her only throng.” Again, Dickinson argues here that truth, no matter how long it is “affronted,” or insulted, rises above the efforts of men to reside with God. Dickinson personifies truth as a woman to whom the crowds of men are irrelevant because she is with God. Both of these poems characterize truth as unchanging, powerful, and besieged. What Dickinson does not make clear is how much she values truth. It seems more like an overarching force than something she connects with on a personal level. While it seems like something that is great and enduring, it is difficult to make an argument that her poetry reflects a belief that it is worthwhile to die for truth.
Given this overview, it is likely that Dickinson rejected the view that beauty or truth were worth dying for, and even “I Died for Beauty” indicates this through its treatment of the dead as ultimately silent and nameless. In the end, as Dickinson sees it, people can die under the honorable banners of beauty and truth, but their deaths go the way of all others. Their expressions go mute, their bodies decay, and their names are forgotten.
Source: Jennifer A. Bussey, Critical Essay on “I Died for Beauty,” in Poetry for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2008.
In the following excerpt, Carton provides a critical overview of Dickinson's poetry, focusing especially on the spiritual and philosophical themes of her work.
… Dickinson, in the words of several of her critics, writes “poems of epistemological quest,” poems that enact “radical inquiry,” poems that test “the strength of the imagination against the stubbornness of life, the repression of an antithetical nature, and that ‘hidden mystery’—the final territory of death.” This is to say, she seeks always to make contact—if not sustained, then repeated contact—with a supreme reality which at once pervades her most intimate surroundings and remains beyond her reach; to this end, she effects the odd fusions of homeliness and extravagance which characterize her language and her conceptions. Because the supreme or divine reality that Dickinson pursues is most hidden when it seems immediate and most mysterious when it seems plain, the pursuit must be waged by means of paradox, renunciation, and surprise. What is easily seen or possessed must be resisted if one is to preserve the potential to “taste a liquor never brewed” or to glimpse “The Color too remote / That I could show it in Bazaar—”; failure to suspect the apparent, Dickinson confesses, has led her many times to embrace the deadly illusion of “Wrecked Men” who
deem they sight the Land—
At Centre of the Sea—
And struggle slacker—but to prove
As hopelessly as I—
How many the fictitious Shores—
Before the Harbor be—
The “struggle” must be perpetuated, even at the cost of eliminating altogether one's ability to “sight the Land” and relying on some other, undiscovered kind of vision.
Renunciation—is a piercing Virtue—
The letting go
A Presence—for an Expectation—
The putting out of Eyes—
Day's Great Progenitor—
Images of blindness or thwarted vision abound in Dickinson's poems and usually signify achievement, or its potential, rather than frustration. “I see thee better—in the Dark—” (“611”), one poem begins, and another echoes, “What I see not, I better see—/ Through Faith—” (“939”). “'Twas lighter—to be Blind—” (“761”), concludes a third, and Dickinson boasts that her house of possibility is “Impregnable of Eye—” (“657”). Although eager to cast blindness in its classical role as a trope for inspiration or insight, Dickinson, as “Renunciation—is a piercing Virtue—” suggests, wholly is not reverent toward it. “The putting out of eyes,” in its chilling deliberateness, assumes the character of a desperate defense against the temptation to sell out the divine expectation in favor of the dazzling presence, or against the greater fear that nothing superior to what is commonly perceived will present itself (“Lest Day—/ Day's Great Progenitor—/ Outvie”). Dickinson's uneasiness in the face of the rival claims of vision and blindness, presence and expectation, manifests itself in elusive and even deceptive poetry.
Before I got my eye put out
I liked as well to see—
As other Creatures, that have Eyes
And know no other way—
But were it told to me—Today—
That I might have the sky
For mine—I tell you that my Heart
Would split, for size of me—
All Forests—Stintless Stars—
As much of Noon as I could take
Between my finite eyes—
The Motions of the Dipping Birds—
The Morning's Amber Road—
For mine—to look at when I liked—
The News would strike me dead—
So safer—guess—with just my soul
Upon the Window pane—
Where other Creatures put their eyes—
Incautious—of the Sun—
Ruth Miller's explicative paraphrase of this poem seems reasonable until one begins to examine her basic assumptions and discovers that they render the poem quite illogical.
Her eyes were put out by the Sun, by her degreeless Noon, by her sudden intuition of a truth so overpowering it shattered her physical sense and replaced that dull way of seeing Nature, that ordinary way ignorant creatures must content themselves with, replaced conventional sight with spiritual vision. When she became aware that all this world of transient nature was not merely to observe but might be possessed, was actually a boon for her taking, that news was too much for her; she was too humble, felt too small and perhaps even fearful of such vision.
Miller first infers from the apparent suggestion of the last two lines that the speaker's eyes were put out not by an act of willful renunciation, as in “Renunciation—is a piercing Virtue—,” but by “the Sun.” She assumes too that this shatterer of conventional sight is rather the shock of spiritual perception (“her degreeless Noon,” “her sudden intuition”) than the celestial body itself. These assumptions enable her to interpret the poem as a simultaneous declaration of access and confession of resistance to the overwhelming potential of supersensory vision; but, if they are correct, what danger could exist for the “other Creatures” who have only physical sight? And what explanation could be given for the speaker's stipulation that the news she could not survive would be news of the unlimited appropriative power of her “finite eyes”—her physical, and also her finished sense of sight? Miller does not address these issues; in fact, she diminishes their gravity for the speaker by misreporting the tense of the verbs in stanzas two through four. “When she became aware … that news was too much for her,” Miller writes. In the poem, the verbs are conditional and the speaker's awareness (“That I might have the sky,” and so forth), though imagined, must remain hypothetical (“But were it told to me—Today—… The News would strike me dead—”).
“Before I got my eye put out” exemplifies perhaps the crucial Dickinsonian situation: that of the quester in mid-quest, indulging the awful possibility that she has sacrificed a presence for an expectation which may prove unfounded, recognizing that the commitment to sacrifice itself is enough to counter (although not enough to dispel) this possibility, and thus sustaining herself between the terrors of complete detachment from and integration with her object. The speaker, here, has forsaken physical sight in preparation for an “other way” to see—a way she expects, as the first stanza implies, to be superior. But now her doubt leads her to imagine being told that she might possess the essential elements of the universe—more than enough to satiate her appetite for splendor—through “finite eyes,” through the mode of perception whose ultimacy she has gambled against. It is not the shock of total spiritual perception which would strike her dead; it is the news that such perception would be both illusory and supererogatory. And a report of the absolute sufficiency of “finite eyes” to one who has committed herself to the “other way” would constitute precisely such news. Since her eye has been put out, however, she can only imagine herself succumbing to the temptation of physical sight and runs little actual risk of having its sufficiency proved to her. To hold up to the world one's soul instead of one's eyes is, ironically, a defensive move. It is “safer” because the light of presence can neither divert one from the pursuit of a superior expectation nor subvert the expectation itself. And, because the soul limits itself to an expectative vision, to guessing, its “other way” to see remains an inextinguishable prospect. The danger of the sun, here as in “Renunciation—is a piercing Virtue—,” is that its light will satisfy the quester and thus disengage her from the pursuit of a light beyond, detach her from God. Such premature satisfaction, what the “other Creatures” risk—and what they gain—would be deadly for Dickinson.
If death is the reward for submission to the reality of “finite eyes” at the expense of the possibility of the sublime, it is equally the reward for strict allegiance to that possibility. In a poem that is closely related to “Before I got my eye put out,” the speaker rejoices in the perpetual failure of her senses (particularly of her vision) to satisfy her (“627”). Everything she perceives hints at “Some Secret” just beyond her grasp, and, in the exultant logic of the poem, she takes these hints to ratify her faith in the superior reality which will unfold before “Another way—to see—.” Thus, she confidently may proclaim that “The Tint I cannot take—is best—” and may cast the visible world as the playful secret-keeper that allows her occasional glimpses of the withheld splendor: nature's array of color “swaggers on the eye,” landscapes put on an “eager look,” summer is a “pleading” which gives way to “That other Prank—of Snow—/ That Cushions Mystery with Tulle.” The tone darkens, however, as the final stanza confronts the prospective circumstance of any full revelation.
Their Graspless manners—mock us—
Until the Cheated Eye
Shuts arrogantly—in the Grave—
Another way—to see—
All that is certain, finally, is that the eye has been cheated and mocked. Its arrogance, in shutting, signals both the stubbornness and the insecurity of the speaker's faith in “Another way—to see—.” The quest for “The Tint I cannot take—” offers no greater guarantee against self-delusion than does the rejection of possibility in favor of “As much of Noon as I could take / Between my finite eyes—.” Moreover, its uncertain chance of success is contingent upon the death of the quester.
Death imagery informs Dickinson's most triumphant visions of her quest's fulfillment. “The Soul's Superior instants” are instants of “Mortal Abolition” and of the “infinite withdraw[al]” of “friend-and Earth's occasion” (“306”). Her sense of the identity between the death of the self and its achieved contact with supreme reality is keenly paradoxical, and she refuses to mitigate the paradox by invoking the Christian division of the self into mortal body and immortal soul. Instead, she often presents a “me” whose ontological integrity is lost (or on the brink of loss), swallowed up in an aqueous eternity, in the moment of fulfillment.
Behind Me—dips Eternity—
Myself—the Term between—
Death but the Drift of Eastern Gray,
Dissolving into Dawn away,
Before the West begin—
Here, the speaker imagines her imminent dissolution in the convergence of earthly and heavenly light. This more beatific than threatening image preludes her vision of an apocalyptic kingdom in which a monarchical figure, triumphing over time and space, makes up both the history and the constituency of his realm through his inexhaustible power of self-apportionment.
'Tis kingdoms—afterward—they say—
In perfect—pauseless Monarchy—
Whose Prince—is Son of None—
Himself—His Dateless Dynasty—
In Duplicate divine—
But this kingdom remains a rumor (“—they say—”); and, in the structure of Dickinson's poem, the state of ultimate selfhood that it represents is “the Term between” two depictions of a present self's inundation. The third stanza is an ominous mirror image of the first. In it, the “me” is the only small locus of illumination. She is explicitly at sea, and her light is threatened, too, by blackness to the North and South and by a sky that has taken on an oceanic turbulence.
'Tis Miracle before Me—then—
'Tis Miracle behind—between—
A Crescent in the Sea—
With Midnight to the North of Her—
And Midnight to the South of Her—
And Maelstrom—in the Sky—
The sea is Dickinson's most frequent symbol of eternity, of the realm in which alone possibility may be realized, and the initial prospect of its invasion is thrilling.
Exultation is the going
Of an inland soul to sea,
Past the houses—past the headlands—
Into deep Eternity—
The “divine intoxication” of this venture, however, can only culminate in complete submission.
It tossed—and tossed—
A little Brig I knew—o'ertook by Blast—
It spun—and spun—
And groped delirious, for Morn—
It slipped—and slipped—
As One that drunken—stept—
Its white foot tripped—
Then dropped from sight—
Whatever she may gain, “The Drop, that wrestles in the Sea—/ Forgets her own locality—” (“284”), loses her integral being. The drowning of a lone individual or a small craft—the simultaneous fulfillment and dissolution that the quester must experience in her integration with the divine—is the subject of perhaps two dozen poems in Dickinson's canon.
Such integration both allures and terrifies, inspiring warring attitudes of dauntless commitment and desperate resistance.
Escaping backward to perceive
The Sea upon our place—
Escaping forward, to confront
His glittering Embrace—
Retreating up, a Billow's height
Retreating blinded down
Our undermining feet to meet
Instructs to the Divine.
The final line of this poem affirms the speaker's sustained faith in “the Divine” and her acceptance of instruction to it, but the sense of helpless terror methodically produced by the preceding seven lines is not dispelled. On the contrary, there may lurk a blasphemous suggestion in the equation of repeatedly futile attempts to escape or retreat from a threatening sea with an understanding of the divine. Dickinson's mingled desire and fear to be consumed is consistent with the overtones of sexual seduction in this poem and others like it. Two earlier poems, in particular, trace the progress of a rising tide up the speaker's body; once she flees and once, to prove her love and faith, she submits. In “I started early—Took my Dog—” the speaker's visit to the sea begins innocently enough but quickly turns ominous when she ventures out beyond “the Sands.”
But no Man moved Me—till the Tide
Went past my simple Shoe—
And past my Apron—and my Belt
And past my Bodice—too—
And made as He would eat me up—
As wholly as a Dew
Upon a Dandelion's Sleeve—
And then—I started—too—
And He—He followed—close behind—
I felt his Silver Heel
Upon my Ankle—Then my Shoes
Would overflow with Pearl—
When she manages to reach “the Solid Town,” the sea withdraws “with a Mighty look.” In her successful flight, however, she not only has escaped violation but also has retreated from the sea's imperial realm and from its offer of precious metals and gems, symbols of eternity's splendor. The speaker in “Me prove it now—Whoever doubt,” hoping to achieve in death a consummation denied her in life, contains her terror and invites her sacrifice, questioning and “searching” throughout for a sign that her hope is justified.
Me prove it now—Whoever doubt
Me stop to prove it—now—
Make haste—the Scruple! Death be scant
The River reaches to my feet—
As yet—My Heart be dry—
Oh Lover—Life could not convince—
Might Death—enable Thee—
The River reaches to My Breast—
Still—still—My Hands above
Proclaim with their remaining Might—
Dost recognize the Love?
The River reaches to my Mouth—
Remember—when the Sea
Swept by my searching eyes—the last—
Themselves were quick—with Thee!
Although the speaker never shrinks from the tide and desperately reiterates her faith to the last, the tension between doubt and belief is not relieved by death. It is only ossified; her eyes, at the moment of their extinction, are both “searching” and, grimly, alive or “quick—with Thee!” Drowning no more assures the speaker's achievement of the supreme communion she has envisioned than “Shut[ting] arrogantly—in the Grave—” assures “the Cheated Eye” of “Another way—to see—.” The self's completed quest for contact, its integration with God, not only is a self-annihilation but may be a self-deception as well.
Dickinson's terror of the fact of such integration, then, is matched by her terror of its illusoriness. The receptive quester, in her faithful submission to some consecrated deluge, risks the loss of her self; the active and creative quester, in assuming the power to shape and to realize her divine expectation, risks the loss of everything but herself. Dickinson cannot quell her suspicion that the integration over which the self presides is only a wishful fabrication dreamed up to disguise her absolute detachment from her true object, an assertion of tyrannical mastery whose achievement is forgery, devaluation, and failure. That any relation between the self and the divine presupposes the vanquishment of one by the other is the bitter implication of “I make His Crescent fill or lack—.”
I make his Crescent fill or lack—
His Nature is at Full
Or Quarter—as I signify—
His Tides—do I control—
He holds superior in the Sky
Or gropes, at my Command
Behind inferior Clouds—or round
A Mist's slow Colonnade—
But since We hold a Mutual Disc—
And front a Mutual Day—
Which is the Despot, neither knows—
Nor whose—the Tyranny—
The third stanza betrays the epistemological groundlessness of the speaker's claim to cosmic power in the first two; perhaps she has been so thoroughly consumed into “His Nature” that she has lost the ability even to distinguish her own impotence from His power. Neither alternative, however, is satisfactory. The possession of the divine that may be achieved by casting God as a puppet, or as a grovelling and insignificant lover, is either an illusory or a grotesquely empty one. Merely to entertain the possibility of such possession, as this poem does, is to cast doubt upon the existence of the divine as anything more than a construct of the creative will (“Which is the Despot, neither knows—“).
The union of the self and the divine, imperiling the one with annihilation and the other with devaluation, occurs less often in Dickinson's poetry than does the failed attempt at it. Such failure is often maddeningly slight-so slight that sometimes it is almost taken for success. “The Brain—is wider than the Sky—” and “deeper than the sea—,” the first two stanzas of poem “632” announce, because it can “contain” and “absorb” them. Upon these preliminary assertions Dickson sets her ultimate claim.
The Brain is just the weight of God—
For-Heft them-Pound for Pound—
And they will differ—if they do—
As Syllable from Sound—
There is, as Robert Weisbuch notes, a rather weighty irony in the qualifying phrase, “if they do.” The difference between “Sound” and “Syllable” is, in his words, “the difference between the thing itself and its imperfect, itemized explanation.” Syllables “absorb” and “contain” sound, just as the brain absorbs the sea and contains the sky; but such mastery, as the poem's last two lines subversively intimate, may constitute loss.
When Dickinson sees her poetic quest for contact with a supreme reality as a series of inevitable failures on the verge of success, poetry itself becomes a sadomasochistic exercise in temptation and denial, a counterfeit of possibility—or, to borrow an early poem's striking phrase, “A Diagram—of Rapture!” (“184”). This vision generates the mingled viciousness and anguish of such poems as the following:
To One denied to drink
To tell what Water is
Would be acuter, would it not
Than letting Him surmise?
To lead Him to the Well
And let Him hear it drip
Remind Him, would it not, somewhat
Of His condemned lip?
Poetry's evocative power is tremendous, but what it evokes, finally, is a tremendous illusion. The word never substantiates itself; the idea only mimics the thing or summons it as an absence. “Talk with prudence to a Beggar / Of ‘Potosi,’ and the mines!” one self-incriminating poem warns; for the convergence of powerful illusion with consciousness of illusion may be maddening, or even fatal.
Cautious, hint to any Captive
You have passed enfranchised feet!
Anecdotes of air in Dungeons
Have sometimes proved deadly sweet!
The liberating possibilities of language neither eradicate nor are eradicated by human limitations. Both captive and enfranchised quester, the poet must breathe a toxic mixture of “Anecdotes of air” and “air in Dungeons.”
The poet's language, then, both renders imminent her quest's object and betrays her detachment from it. “‘Heaven’—is what I cannot reach!” begins one poem whose eleven subsequent lines nonetheless generate images with which the speaker reaches toward it, images which “decoy” “The credulous” and keep them “Enamored—of the Conjuror—/ That spurned us—Yesterday!” (“239”) Dickinson stands uneasily between “The credulous” and “the Conjuror” as the representative of both. The maker of images and arguments to answer her own need to believe, she cannot but suspect at times that she is the only conjuror and that her entire enterprise amounts to a magnificent decoy.
I know that He exists.
He has hid his rare life
From our gross eyes.
'Tis an instant's play.
'Tis a fond Ambush—
Just to make Bliss
Earn her own surprise!
But—should the play
Prove piercing earnest—
Should the glee—glaze—
Would not the fun
Look too expensive!
Would not the jest—
Have crawled too far!
Here, the game of hide-and-seek is introduced to reconcile the poet's faith in God (the rare period after line 1 provides necessary reinforcement) with her utter lack of evidence. The perfect and benevolent reason of His choice to hide “his rare life” until she has somewhat rarefied her perception is comforting at first. But, once she has had to account for God as the player of a part in a game of her own earnest invention, the possibility soon presents itself that that part is His sole reality. The painfully alliterative third stanza enacts the hardening of metaphor into fact, of temporary attitude into permanent lifelessness. The absence of pronouns in stanzas three and four effects a debased merger of poet and God; both participate in a cruel jest and both fall victim to it. Lively belief, discovering its involvement with artifice, can give way almost instantly in Dickinson's poems to staring emptiness, like the cheap and ephemeral splendor of a travelling circus.
I've known a Heaven, like a Tent—
To wrap its shining Yards—
Pluck up its stakes, and disappear—
Without the sound of Boards
Or rip of Nail—Or Carpenter—
But just the miles of Stare—
That signalize a Show's Retreat—
In North America—
Contact on any terms becomes desirable when the poetic quest for reality repeatedly ends in frustration. Even a false faith may be contemplated—“Better an ignis fatuus / Than no illume at all-” (“1551”)—and Dickinson may knowingly attempt to generate sustaining fictions, “to think a lonelier Thing / Than any I had seen—,” for instance, in order to provide herself the “Haggard Comfort” of an imagined companion (“532”). But such fictions merely enable their maker to feel more keenly the lack that gives rise to them: “Conjecturing a Climate / Of unsuspended Suns—/ Adds poignancy to Winter—” (“562”). In these moods, truth seems to inhere only in pain and death.
I like a look of Agony,
Because I know it's true—
Men do not sham Convulsion,
Nor simulate, a Throe—
The Eyes glaze once—and that is Death—
Impossible to feign
The Beads upon the Forehead
By homely Anguish strung.
Not even the image of death, however, bespeaks certain truth. Life does imitate death and death feigns life in a number of Dickinson's poems—”It was not Death, for I stood up” (“510”), “I breathed enough to take the Trick—” (“272”), “A Wounded Deer—leaps highest—” (“165”), and “She lay as if at play” (“369”), to name several—nor can a typological view of such interplay put things securely in order. Typology, Dickinson understands even as she employs it, no matter how faultless or sublime, remains a kind of metaphor, a literary device. The highest reality still must be imagined; and, once imagined, its basis solely in imagination, in fiction, becomes all too clear. This is the paradox that perhaps most centrally preoccupies American literature. The attempt to locate an essential reality and the true foundation of selfhood by means of imagination and language fails by claiming to succeed; the very sources of its power guarantee against its consummation.
That Dickinson's quest continues under these recognized circumstances seems to betray a self-deception on her part, a strategic blindness adopted to sustain her visionary enterprise. This self-deception, however, if it can be labelled as such at all, is of a peculiarly conscious and self-exposing variety. “In insecurity to lie / Is Joy's insuring quality” (“1434”), Dickinson wryly and relentlessly insists. For her, perseverance toward a supreme and unexampled truth requires not that one delude oneself as to language's adequacy or imagination's innate legitimacy, but that one proceed as if they were, or could prove, adequate and legitimate, even while questioning or mocking such procedure. (Ironically, the element of self-doubt or self-mockery tends to preserve the questing self of Dickinson's poetry from the devastation of complete integration with or detachment from its object.) Dickinson's consciousness of her imaginative vision's susceptibility to delusion, then, no more cancels her commitment to the vision than the commitment cancels her consciousness.
The willingness ultimately to be deceived is a requisite for true faith, and faith alone is a more powerful argument when the consciousness that it may foster a delusion presses sensibly against its surface. Understanding this, Dickinson may reaffirm her enterprise as she confesses its insubstantiality.
Could Hope inspect her Basis
Her Craft were done—
Has a fictitious Charter
Or it has none—
The double vision, projection and reflection, that hope cannot endure is maintained in Dickinson's poetry. Dickinson does inspect hope's basis without relinquishing all hope or repudiating her craft. Her art deliberately exposes its artificiality; it admits its fictitious charter and proceeds to found itself squarely upon it.
Taking up the fair Ideal,
Just to cast her down
When a fracture—we discover—
Or a splintered Crown—
Makes the Heavens portable—
And the Gods—a lie—
Doubtless—“Adam”—scowled at Eden—
For his perjury!
Cherishing—our poor Ideal—
Till in purer dress—
We behold her—glorified—
Till the broken creatures—
We adored—for whole—
Meet us—with a smile—
Whenever we take up our ideal, Dickinson suggests, whenever we clearly view the object of our quest, we perceive it to be flawed. Its flaw, however, reflects our own limitation or failure.
“Doubtless—‘Adam’—scowled at Eden—/ For his perjury!” Only by the enactment of a conscious fiction, therefore, may our proper ideality and the ideality of our ideal be restored: the adoration of “broken creatures—/ … for whole—” leads to their transfiguration. Encountering our ideal in faith, we soon find it to have assumed new splendor; “washed,” “mended” and “in purer dress,” it bestows upon us an ambiguous smile which seems at once beatific and conspiratorial.
Source: Evan Carton, “Dickinson and the Divine: The Terror of Integration, the Terror of Detachment,” in ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance, Vol. 24, No. 4, 1978, pp. 242-52.
Gilbert P. Voigt
In the following essay, Voigt explores the religious and spiritual beliefs that Dickinson held. Many of these beliefs are apparent in “I Died for Beauty.”
Thomas Carlyle once remarked that “the chief thing about a man is his religion; and until we know what a man thinks and believes about religion and God, we do not know that man.” Hence, any attempt to understand the fascinating but baffling Thrush of Amherst must take account of her religious attitude and creed. It is difficult to determine these, chiefly because of her strange contradictions and startling inconsistencies; her cries of doubt and her confessions of faith; her petulant indictments of God and her confiding appeals to him. One moment she is not sure there is another life; another time she is certain of it. On one occasion she accuses God of duplicity; on another, she expresses “perfect confidence in … his promises.” Sometimes he seems a cruel enemy; again, an infinitely tender friend. In one mood she considers our universe impossible and cruel; in another, she finds human life ecstatically beautiful.
Any Lowell once suggested that these contradictions in Emily Dickinson were due to her dual nature, which made her at once a pagan and a “sincerely religious woman.” Inherently she was a pagan; by training she had been made religious.
But was Emily Dickinson by nature a pagan? That is, was she irreligious? Some of her utterances seem to show that she was jestingly irreverent. She addresses the Almighty as “Papa above,” “our hospitable old neighbor,” “the Jehovah who never takes a nap.” She even accuses God of unkindness in refusing her prayer for the relief of another's pain and of injustice in excluding Moses from the Promised Land. But we must remember that she was by nature mischievous with a “vein of pert and bubbling rascality” and a penchant for playful and good-natured banter. Hence her picture of the Puritan heaven:
Because it's Sunday all the time
And recess never comes;
And Eden'll be so lonesome
Bright Wednesday afternoons.
At times she was petulant and pouting—in short, childish. She liked to regard herself somewhat kittenishly asGod's “old-fashioned, naughty” little girl. She is a striking illustration of the “superficial tendency toward irreverence,” which, as Joseph Wood Krutch has pointed out, overlies “the fundamental earnestness of the American character.”
But Emily Dickinson was not always childish. Usually she was childlike. Her faith was as simple and as strong as that of a child:
Savior! I've no one else to tell
And so I trouble Thee,
I am the one forgot Thee so.
Dost Thou remember me?
When her good friend J. G. Holland died, she consolingly reminded Mrs. Holland that her husband had been on “childlike terms with the Father in Heaven,” and that he had “passed from confiding to comprehending.” Her own faith was equally confiding; it was a bridge without piers, which bore her bold soul over its “unshakeable span of steel to the mysterious, yet certain Isles of the Blest.” In the midst of sorrow and hardships she could feel the hand of her Heavenly Father:
Far from love the Heavenly Father
Leads the chosen child;
Oftener through realm of briar
Than the meadow mild,
Oftener by the claw of dragon
Than the hand of friend,
Guides the little one predestined
To the native land.
She could be sure that
Not one by Heaven defrauded stay.
Although He seem to steal,
He restitutes in some sweet way
Secreted in His will.
These are not the utterances of a pagan in either sense of the word.
Carl Sandburg has given Emily Dickinson the felicitous title, “the impish and mystic singer of Amherst.” And indeed she was a mystic. First, in the philosophical sense of the term.
By intuition mightiest things
Assert themselves, and not by terms.
This was her belief. She was not a logician or a systematic philosopher. Her flashes of intuition were as disconnected as Emerson's.
She was a mystic also in the religious sense of the term—a Christian mystic. Her knowledge of the Triune God was intuitive; she felt his presence constantly. Sometimes he seemed to be a next-door neighbor; at other times, a guest:
The Soul that has a Guest,
Doth seldom go abroad,
Diviner Crowd at home
Obliterate the need …
Occasionally she was caught up into the seventh heaven, like Paul, and permitted a vision of “the colossal substance of immortality.” Now and then she felt herself united to God in immortal wedlock:
Bride of the Father and the Son,
Bride of the Holy Ghost.
Like other mystics, she emphasized the beauty of God. Human life she found “all aglow with God and immortality.” So her sister-in-law has told us. “Her garden was full of His brightness and glory; the birds sang and the sky glowed because of Him.” Thus Mrs. Mabel Loomis Todd has written.
But, like othermystics again, Emily Dickinson rejected accepted beliefs and practices: her heaven was not the one “the creeds bestow.” The doctrine of original sin she held to be false. Of conversion she felt no need, and her pastor assured her parents that the usual process of conversion was not necessary for her. As for the Bible, she accepted only those parts her experience confirmed.
There is a fairly close parallel between Emily Dickinson and St. Teresa. Both had frail bodies. Both had literary genius. Both were aristocrats. Both were “romantic and ardent.” Both were torn between two worlds. Both disliked pretension and spiritual conceit. Both were witty and full of fun. Both were angels of mercy. Both had a direct experience of God.
But mystical as she was, Emily Dickinson did not ignore the needs and claims of the intellect. Indeed, she thanked God for “these strange minds” of ours, even if they do at times turn us against him, even though at the sight of human suffering they look to him with “confiding revulsion.” She believed that “faith is doubt”; that our dull human eyes cannot see clearly the spiritual and the supernatural:
Not “Revelation” 'tis that waits,
But our unfurnished eyes.
Emily Dickinson's theology may be reduced to three dogmas, her creed to three articles. The first is her belief in the essential beauty and goodness of human life and of the earth. To this extent she was something of a pagan. Her religion was one of joy and beauty and happiness. Her church was a sunny orchard; her chorister a blithe bobolink; her preacher the bright and glorious God himself. Except for death, which snatched her loved ones away, it was “heaven below”; even with suffering and sorrow, there was a predominance of bliss.
The second article of Emily Dickinson's creed is the beneficent power of suffering. Although the sight of pain she could not relieve made of her “a demon,” yet she attempted to see the reason and the good in human suffering. She decided that it was God's means of making happiness all the brighter by contrast, of refining and enlightening mankind.
Must be a woe,
A loss or so,
To bend the eye
Best beauty's way.
A common bliss
Were had for less;
Even as the Grace.
The mysterious path of pain she considered but the way
With many a turn and thorn
That stops at Heaven.
And if the problem of suffering is beyond our present power of solution, some day “Christ will explain each separate anguish” and will provide in Heaven an abundant compensation for all the sufferings of earth: “What a recompense! The enthusiasm of God at the reception of His sons! How ecstatic! How infinite!”
For the third article of Emily Dickinson's creed is her deep and abiding faith in the immortality of the soul. Toward the close of her sheltered life, as the company of her departed loved ones grew larger and larger, she seemed to live more with them than with her relatives and friends on earth. And in her last illness her thoughts turned constantly to Heaven. “I live in the sea always now,” she remarked to her beloved Sister Sue, “and know the road.”
Not satisfied with her intuitive awareness of eternity, she was fond of speculating on its nature. She likened it to an infinite series of seas:
As if the sea should part
And show a further sea
And that a further, and the three
But a presumption be
Of periods of seas
Unvisited of shores—
Themselves the verge of seas to be—
Eternity is these.
Though she had rebelled against the Calvinistic faith of her parents, Emily Dickinson did not turn to Unitarianism, as did Oliver Wendell Holmes, or to Episcopalianism, as did Harriet Beecher Stowe. Nor did she become an agnostic like Francis Parkman, or an unbeliever like William Dean Howells. She retained her religious faith, mystical and individualistic as it was. She suggests the Transcendentalists, but the parallel must not be pressed. As in other respects, so in her inner life, she was sui generis.
Source: Gilbert P. Voigt, “The Inner Life of Emily Dickinson,” in College English, Vol. 3, No. 2, November 1941, pp. 192-96.
Francis H. Stoddard
In the following letter, Stoddard offers a rebuttal to an earlier Critic review of Dickinson's poetry. Focusing specifically on “I Died for Beauty” in his argument, Stoddard attempts to prove that the poem is not formless despite the fact that it does not adhere to traditional poetic forms.
To the Editors of The Critic:—
In your issue of Dec. 19 an evidently competent reviewer refers to the first volume of Miss Dickinson's poems [Poems by Emily Dickinson], issued a year ago, as a ‘volume of curiously formless poems,’ and suggests that the fact of the issuance of several editions proves ‘that a great many persons care little for the form of expression in poetry so long as the thoughts expressed are startling, eccentric and new.’ In the same review the critic says of the two volumes taken together that ‘their absolute formlessness keeps them almost outside the pale of poetry.’ The thought here seems to be that real poetry must have perfection of technique, must have metrical and grammatical finish: the poems of Emily Dickinson do not have such finish; hence these verses are almost out of the pale of poetry. The major premise here set down has not been attacked of late. The minor one is not so easily disposed of. For Miss Dickinson's poems may be formless, or they may be worded to so fine and subtile a device that they seem formless, just as the spectrum of a far-off star may seem blankness until examined with a lens of especial power. I wish to examine one poem of Miss Dickinson's, taken almost at random, and search for the fine lines of the spectrum. For such example I take this poem [”I died for beauty, but was scarce“]:—
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 kinsman met a night,
We talked between the rooms,
Until the moss had reached our lips,
And covered up our names.
Now the notion here is the notion of the unity of truth and beauty. If harmony with the thought is to prevail in the verse we should expect a closely parallel structure with a figure in dual accent—i.e., based upon two factors. Such a figure we get:—
I died' for beauty, but was scarce
Adjusted' in the tomb',
When one who died' for truth' was lain
In an adjoin'ing room'.
Two pairs of lines, each with two accents, the similar words being matched in pairs—‘justed’: joining', died': died', tomb': room'. Beauty' and truth' do not perfectly match, of course, because not yet proved to be one in nature. These exact correspondences would produce mechanical regularity and overprove the proposition by over-emphasizing the innate notion of harmony, if care were not taken. So care is taken to contrast the positions of the members of the separate pars. That is, in the first line, the slurred words but was scarce are at the end, while in the corresponding line the slurred words when one who are at the beginning. Similarly, the slurred words in the in the second line are contrasted in position with the slurred words in an in the fourth line.
In the second stanza we have a more perfectly parallel figure, in accord with the development of the notion of harmony between truth and beauty.
He questioned', softly', why' I failed'?
For beauty'; I replied'.
And I'—for truth'—the two' are one',
We brethren' are; he said'.
Almost a formal balancing, but with a suggestion of relief; as, for example, in the harmonic echo of he questioned', in the opening line, with We brethren', in the closing line, suggesting a recurrence of the first verse motive.
In the last verse comes the deeper verity that though truth and beauty are one spiritually, they can never be at one in this world. So at the close the pattern changes and together with the hint of the attainment of perfect harmony we have a reversion both in form and tone. It is a suggestion of the death reversion which springs the thought to a harmony more subtile and remote.
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 rhyme changes to alliteration which is beginning-rhyme instead of end-rhyme—night: names. That is, our earthly names are lost in the endless night of death; ourselves, at one with each other, at one with truth and beauty, entered into the endless day of beauty and of truth.
I submit that such art as this may be subtle and mediaval, but it is not formlessness.
Source: Francis H. Stoddard, “Technique in Emily Dickinson's Poems,” in Critic, Vol. 17, No. 516, January 9, 1892, pp. 24-25.
Allison, Alexander W., et al, eds., “Emily Dickinson,” in The Norton Anthology of Poetry,Norton, 1983, pp. 804-16.
Dickinson, Emily, The Complete Poems, www.bartleby.com/113/ (accessed October 17, 2007).
———, “I Died for Beauty,” in The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson, Back Bay, 1976.
Harmon, William, and Hugh Holman, eds., “Realistic Period in American Literature, 1865-1900,” in A Handbook to Literature, Prentice Hall, 2003, pp. 422-23.
Hendrickson, Paula, “Dickinson and the Process of Death,” in Dickinson Studies, Vol. 77, 1991, pp. 33-43.
“Poems by Emily Dickinson,” in the Nation, No. 1326, November 27, 1890, p. 423.
“The Poems of Emily Dickinson,” inCritic,Vol. 14, No. 363, December 13, 1890, pp. 305-306.
Ransom, John Crowe, “Emily Dickinson: A Poet Restored,” in Emily Dickinson: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Richard Sewall, Prentice Hall, 1963, pp. 88-100.
Reeves, James, “Emily Dickinson: Overview,” in Reference Guide to American Literature, edited by Jim Kamp, St. James Press, 1994.
Angelo, Raymond, Leslie A. Morris, Richard B. Sewall, and Judith Farr, Emily Dickinson's Herbarium: A Facsimile Edition, Belknap Press, 2006.
Dickinson began gardening and preserving samples as a teenager. This is a copy of the book where she pressed flowers and herbs, complete with labels and comments.
Bradbury, Malcolm, and Richard Ruland, From Puritanism to Postmodernism: A History of American Literature, Penguin, 1992.
Considered a readable overview of American history, this volume follows the styles of, and reactions to, literature from the earliest days of America up to 1990. Dickinson is given consideration in the author's analysis.
Lundin, Roger, Emily Dickinson and the Art of Belief, William B. Eerdmans, 2004.
Lundin brings together biographical information and Dickinson's poems to explore the poet's Christianity and personal religious beliefs.