Dickinson Revisits Keats: “I Died for Beauty”

dickinson2I 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 brethren, 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–

Emily Dickinson’s favorite poets were John Keats and Robert Browning. Certainly, “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and “I Died for Beauty” are indubitably linked through their exploration of Platonic idealism in regard to Beauty and Truth.

For Keats, Beauty becomes synonymous with Art, or Imagination. When he famously offers near the ode’s end his maxim, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” he means that what the imagination perceives as real is both beautiful and true.  Putting it another way, Art is Truth beautifully rendered.

Dickinson, in contrast, exhibits a more modern, complicated sensibility in her latent suspicion of a priori reasoning. Truth and Beauty, undefined in her poem, are relative terms, not verities. Although she may initially appear accepting of their affinity (i.e., “kindred”) a closer reading indicates that their synthesis isn’t a given. Why are the two entities in separate rooms?  Why must they converse “between the rooms”? In short, they’re separate bed fellows.

What does Dickinson connote in the first speaker’s use of “died,” subsequently rendered “failed” by the second speaker?  If the two entities are related, it consists in their earnest pursuit of absolutes, or closure within the context of human experience. Ironically, failure, not success, informs their liaison in death as we’ll see in the poem’s conclusion.

For the Platonist Keats, their proffered unity transcends mortality.  Not so for Dickinson’s poem in which Truth and Beauty, never articulated, nor the context of their demise, metamorphose into indecipherable headstones, swallowed up by the anonymity of death and its oblivion:

We talked…
Until the Moss had reached our lips–
And covered up–Our names.

In sum, death abrogates every human quest, even the most noble.

–rj

About RJ

Retired English prof (Ph. D., UNC), who likes to garden, blog, pursue languages (especially Spanish) and to share in serious discussion on vital issues such as global warming, the role of government, energy alternatives, etc. Am a vegan and, yes, a tree hugger enthusiastically. If you write me, I'll answer.
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