Emily Dickinson’s poem “I died for beauty” is an intriguing and indeed startling work in a number of different ways.
It begins abruptly, as many of Dickinson’s poems do. It opens with a claim that at first seems difficult to accept: how can the speaker have died for beauty and still be speaking (or writing) this poem? We quickly assume that the speaker is speaking from beyond the grave – that somehow the speaker has in some way survived death. Yet the questions keep coming: how, exactly, and why, exactly, did the speaker die “for beauty”? No answer is given, and perhaps no answer can finally be anything more than purely speculative. Thus the poem seems doubly mysterious even before the first line is finished. Dickinson’s poems often resemble riddles, designed to make us think, and this poem seems no exception.
Even more surprises, however, are in store for us. No sooner is the speaker “Adjusted in the tomb” (2), and no sooner are we beginning to puzzle out the meanings of the poem, than another surprise occurs:
. . . one who died for truth was lain
In an adjoining room. (3-4)
The phrase “adjoining room” here is a metaphor for a grave, coffin, or tomb, and it is typical of Dickinson’s poetry to make us see things from her fresh and unusual perspective: how many other poets have ever thought to compare two graves to two adjoining rooms?
More surprises await us: the occupant of the adjoining grave now also begins to speak, asking why the original speaker died and then revealing that he himself died “for truth” (7). The idea that truth and beauty are the same is an old, even conventional idea, but perhaps never before had the idea been expressed in a conversation between two people who are dead and buried. Meanwhile, the fact that the occupant of the adjoining grave says that he and the first speaker are “brethren” is just the latest surprise: anyone who assumed that the original speaker was female because the author of the poem is female must now adjust that assumption.
The greatest surprise of all, however, is saved for stanza three:
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 idea that the moss has encroached upon the tombstones makes some sense; the idea that the moss has reached the speakers’ lips, however, would seem to prevent them from speaking, and yet the original speaker is doing just that in the present poem. To whom is the original speaker speaking? Is to God or to some other being who exists far beyond the grave? Is the speaker now speaking also from a place far beyond the grave, remembering a strange final phase of existence on earth?
Dickinson’s poems often seem designed to raise far more questions than they answer, and this poem definitely seems designed to accomplish that task. It is a strange, bizarre work – a work that makes physical death sound almost comforting, even domestic and cozy. And yet the final image (of the encroaching moss) is somehow disturbing, as well.