I’m nearly over the bout of upper-respiratory crud that has laid me low this month, so I felt it time to see if I could test the dulcet tones of my voice again with a new audio piece. Today’s is one by Emily Dickinson: “I died for Beauty — but was scarce.”
This poem is characteristically short, and “I died for Beauty” has long been one of Dickinson’s “better known” poems. Let’s do what I often like to do with one of Poetry’s Greatest Hits here and see what we may have missed, and why I might archly put that “better known” in quotes. Here’s a link to a blog post that starts with the full text of the poem in case you’d like to refer to that as I discuss it.
Let me get this out first: to certain sensibilities this is a poem that’s easy to find infused with a kind of corny gothic pretension. It’s got all the counters, common already in Dickinson’s mid-19th century, only more so now: graves, decomposing tragic corpses, sad death, and the world’s disinterest in earnest souls. And on top of this: it’s got capital letter Truth and Beauty. Even a school child who’s read and adored some Keats* will see Dickinson as dropping a shout-out to the doomed garageman’s son.
What can we infer about what Dickinson intended here? I’m no Dickinson scholar, but what I’ve gleaned from reading some of her letters as well as her poems is that while she had those gothic urges, she fiercely wielded a skeptical eye and a satirist’s pen. My guess is that she believed in capital letter Truth and Beauty, and Poetry for that matter, but she also knew the comic limits of humans dealing with them. I could be wrong, or projecting, but that’s the Dickinson I “read.”
The poem’s opening line, with its concluding start of a broken phrase “I died for Beauty — but was scarce” lets one suspect that the tomb is not exactly overflowing with heavenly beauty. So, our dead-in-the-tomb “died for beauty” narrator here finds death (like life) is asking for our narrator to become “adjusted.”
But wait there’s another voice! One equally devoted to capital letters! One who died for Truth! In case one thinks those capital letters are shouty, his voice is soft, somewhat defeated, and is asking about failure. Note that the died for Truth voice is male —we’ll have more to say regarding gendering in the poem soon.
Here’s how Dickinson wrote down this poem of hers in one of her sewn-up fascicles.
Dickinson either makes an odd choice or is just awkward in the Truth guy’s opening question.** She writes it as he’s asking “Why I failed?” in quotes. In ordinary writing this would indicate that the voice is asking: “Why did I, the Truth Guy, fail.”*** However in the context of the poem the Beauty voice, our narrator, answers back as if they were asked why they died. It’s hard to convey in a single-voice performance, but if Dickinson intended this awkwardness, it’d be a demonstration of Beauty being consumed by their own state and so thinking the question was to them.
The conclusion of the 2nd stanza, Truth Guy’s reply to our Beauty narrator is stilted, even by mid-19th century formal speech standards. I don’t know if this is intended or simply a failure in Dickinson’s prosody. If intended, Truth Guy’s speech is demonstrably meaningful (truthful) while not being beautiful. I think of my thought about Dickinson growing up in a household consumed with lawyering and contracts and being genetically related to lawyers.
I’m indebted to Oliver Tearle in pointing out something else in Truth’s little speech: he calls our narrator “Brethren” which is continued in the summary of the next and final stanza as “Kinsmen.” Now if we are to assume that our narrator is Emily Dickinson, a woman, then she’s just changed gender or has been miss-gendered by Truth Guy. Now of course even though the poem begins with “I” we can’t be sure that Dickinson — even if consumed by the beauty of poetry and multiple times in her poems apt to cast herself as writing of herself after death — intends that I who died for Beauty to be herself.
This may be leading to the final two lines, where truthfully and beautifully the omnivorous (even consuming mineral!) moss consumes their bodies and eventually their grave’s marker stones, leaving nothing gendered, nothing specific, only their essences returning to our shared essence: the truth and beauty available to us all if we seek it, to borrow and use it, to find comfort with, and to comfort by.
I’ll pause here to note that poet Ethna McKiernan died this past Sunday. I worked on this Sunday and Monday before I heard the news.
A Player gadget is below for many of you to hear my performance of Emily Dickinson’s “I died for Beauty — but was scarce.” And if you don’t see that, this highlighted hyperlink will also play it.
*No shame in that. I was one. The long-running Prowling Bee blog project points out that the Truth and Beauty paring is also present in known Dickinson influence Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s epic poem “A Vision of Poets.” It’s also worth considering that Keats’ Truth and Beauty urn is not simply a joyful object for contemplation, or even a clear model for the supremacy of art like Rilke’s white-scrubbed statue.
I’ll offer my own tentative and inconclusive possible inspiration: It’s thought this poem was composed in 1862, and while we don’t know the particulars of Dickinson’s intent, there’d be this possible even more contemporary influence: the folk hymn adaption “John Brown’s body (lies a moldering in his grave/but his soul is marching on)” which was transmuted into a more grand literary composition with the chorus of “His truth is marching on.” As “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” Julia Ward Howe’s poem was published in the February 1862 number of the Atlantic Monthly where Dickinson surely would have seen it. Literally, the antecedent to “His” in Howe’s poem is the godhead, but folk-music-process wise, the antecedent is John Brown.
Posthumous editor and sought-out living “preceptor” (in her words) of Dickinson, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, was a backer of John Brown’s raid.
**Original Dickinson editors Mabel Loomis Todd and Thomas Wentworth Higginson removed the quotes Dickinson put around Truth Guy’s question, making it clearly a question to our died for Beauty narrator in their version. So “He questioned softly ‘Why I failed’?” in Dickinson’s hand then became “He questioned softly why I failed?” on first printing.
***”Failed” here is meant also to have a double meaning as in dying, but the fail in failed is too prominent. As this voice was first introduced, “One who died for Truth” is more noble sounding, as in martyrdom, than failed in truth.