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Analysis of Poem "I died for beauty but was scarce" by Emily Dickinson

Updated on September 25, 2017
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Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson | Source

Emily Dickinson and I died for beauty but was scarce

I died for beauty but was scarce is one of nearly 1800 poems Emily Dickinson wrote during her lifetime. This unknown collection was discovered by her sister Lavinia, who decided to try and get them published, which she succeeded in doing in 1890. The poem was probably written in around 1862.

Reclusive, sensitive yet highly intelligent, Emily Dickinson did not venture far from her home, preferring instead the quiet surroundings of her family home in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Only 7 of her poems were published while she was alive and none had her name attributed. Over time she became posthumously famous and is now held in great esteem by scholars and the public alike.

Members of her own family knew that Emily had a special gift for capturing the essence of an event or feeling in her written word. They likened her to a magician who 'caught the shadowy apparations of her brain and tossed them in startling picturesqueness to her friends.'

  • Her unique poetry is rich in natural imagery, symbol and allegory and packs a whole lot of meaning into a small space. If you come across an Emily Dickinson manuscript look out for the characteristic slanted, primitive hand-writing and her many dashes, her preferred mode of punctuation.

I died for beauty but was scarce reflects Emily Dickinson's fascination for death and the possible life to follow. She wrote letters to correspondents asking specifically for witnessed accounts of those in the process of dying, somewhat unusual but not shocking - many poets are so distracted by and in awe of life, they find death a bit of an odd concept.

This poem is set in the afterlife, in the tomb, and is a mini-exploration of Beauty and Truth, or is that Truth and Beauty?

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 - Themself are One -
We Bretheren, 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 -

Analysis of I died for beauty - but was scarce

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.

More Analysis of I died for beauty but was scarce

I died for beauty - but was scarce is a 3 stanza poem, each stanza having four lines. On the page it is simple in layout, typical Dickinson in many ways, with lots of dashes - which is where the reader should pause - and no title. She never gave titles to her poems, so the first line is often used instead.

Rhyme

The rhyme scheme is abcb with the second and fourth lines rhyming. In the first stanza the end rhyme is full: Tomb/room, but in the 2nd and 3rd stanza the end rhymes are imperfect rhymes: replied/said and Rooms/names.

The latter reflect the unusual situation the two deceased are in; they share the same fate - death - and both died for ideals, but time is being warped because they talked for a night yet the slow-growing moss grew and covered them over.

Meter (Metre in UK)

Iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter dominate the poem. The tetrameter lines (the first and third in each stanza) having eight syllables and four feet, the trimeter lines (the second and fourth) having six syllables and three feet. For example:

I died / for Beau / ty - but / was scarce

Adjust / ed in / the Tomb

So the poem when read has a familiar, steady rhythm underlying.

Enjambment

When a line flows on into the next without punctuation, and the sense continues, then this is enjambment. It challenges the reader to go on as if there is no line break.

For example, lines 1 and 2 and 3 are all enjambed, whereas the rest of the lines in the poem are not, ending in dashes and a question mark.

© 2017 Andrew Spacey

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  • StephanieBCrosby profile image

    Stephanie Bradberry 4 weeks ago from New Jersey

    Interesting analysis. I hope people will learn from your insights.