Summary and Analysis
In the following analysis, Robert C. Evans examines Emily Dickinson’s poem “I died for beauty” by exploring its use of surprise, paradox, simple language, complicated implications, and the use of phrasing indebted to riddles and parables.
“I died for beauty,” by the American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886), startles even in its first two words. How, we ask, can the speaker be dead and yet be speaking? Dickinson often uses paradoxes, and her opening two words here seem instantly paradoxical. Is the speaker referring to literal death, or is the death merely figurative and symbolic? In what senses and in what ways has the speaker “died for beauty”? Is this phrase simply metaphorical, perhaps alluding to some extreme devotion to a beautiful thing or person? In its very first phrase, then, the poem has us asking questions, both of it and of ourselves. Dickinson enjoys being provocative, and this poem instantly provokes thought.
As baffling as the poem at first appears (and continues to appear until its conclusion), it nevertheless uses lucid, seemingly straightforward language and clear, unsurprising sentence structure. These techniques and aspects of style are typical of Dickinson: she often writes about puzzling subjects in seemingly simple ways. She makes us think without seeming to strain our (or her own) vocabulary. Sometimes, for these reasons, her poems resemble riddles, and their riddling qualities are enhanced by their typical brevity. The present poem would not be nearly as effective if it were twice or three times its present length. Here, as in so many of her works, Dickinson surprises us by jumping immediately into a topic, with no attempt at forewarning or explanation. And no sooner is she in than she is out again. As readers, we are often left to wonder what just happened in a Dickinson poem.
By the second line of the present work, it seems clear that the speaker intends us to take her (or is it him?) seriously: the speaker claims to be literally in a “tomb,” but no sooner is this claim made than another startling assertion is presented: another dead person—who “died for truth” (3)—is “lain” in “an adjoining room” (3-4). Truth and beauty, the common ideals linked together by Plato but also associated with the English Romantic poet John Keats, are here the causes of death rather than inspiring sources of life. The two dead persons are described almost as martyrs to these high ideals. Somehow (we never learn exactly how or why), these two dead persons have died for truth and beauty. Throughout the whole first stanza, then, Dickinson creates an air of mystery; yet she does so partly by writing in an extremely laconic, understated, and matter-of-fact style. The speaker doesn’t seem to be self-consciously trying to shock us; instead, the speaker simply takes for granted the strange assumptions with which the poem begins, proceeds, and ends.
Only in stanza two do we discover that the other person is a male and that the speaker is male as well. They converse as if there is nothing peculiar about two dead people talking: one more example of how Dickinson often makes the strange seem familiar and the familiar seem strange. In tone, phrasing, and even in structure, the poem operates as if everything is normal. The first stanza is balanced in design (the first two lines focus on the speaker, while the next two focus on his neighbor), and so is stanza two:...
(The entire section is 878 words.)