“I Died for Beauty — But Was Scarce”: Emily Dickinson’s Mini Exploration of Life and Death

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R E V I E W – P O E M

Fiana Islam

In the world of literature, where the notion about living and dying has been illustrated multiple times, the ultimate truth in my opinion is, anyone can hardly ever beat Emily Dickinson’s perception towards life and death that is reflected in her poetry with such virtuosity. The ambiguous meanings that Dickinson provided in her poetry allow the audience to have their interpretations, while also contemplating the concepts of existence and beyond.

Recently, I have read her impactful poem: I Died For Beauty—But Was Scarce. The concept of life and death has been described by different emotional responses so creatively in this poem that readers would get a collaborative viewpoint, and that, I found mystical.

Emily Dickinson has drawn a sort of sinister picture in I Died For Beauty—But Was Scarce. This poem is set in the afterlife, located in a tomb, and is a mini-exploration of a whole unknown environment. The speaker is a dead person, accompanied by another corpse in the same tomb. Their lives having ended, the very first thing they talk about is how they failed in their lifetimes. They discuss their lives’ achievements and disappointments, while there is still time before they cease to exist. The speaker conveys that she died for her only asset, which was beauty. The secondary speaker, who is her dead companion, states that he gave his life for truth. This is a vast representation of the aspects of human life that Dickinson painted—the beauty of survival and truth of death, which by default, will remain buried in the ground even if these contained meanings when one was alive. Everything ceases to matter once one is dead. 

In many other literary pieces, we might see Death as the opposite – fearful and foreboding, but this one is an exception.  Death is projected as a natural process in the poem, one where a body starts to decompose after a certain time which is the only inevitable truth of the universe. 

I found this poem to be a depiction of human emotions, companionship, and mortality. In the end, all went under the graveyard as gradually the bodies in the tomb expired.

With the last line: Until the Moss had reached our lips – And covered up – Our names, the complete cycle of death happened, and the poet gave the readers an ominous feeling of the underworld, where everyone is obliged to remain mute and forgotten. Now the question might arise in the end, is it worth dying for the materialistic principles that the speakers had? Nobody knows if someone is waiting for us on the other side of the wall. What if there is none? What if after everything, all we face is nothingness…nada?     

While reading this poem, I found it quite depressing as it shows a dead end. So, I prefer the fact that death is rather “exploited” here than “explored”. The moss has covered the dead bodies’ lips and that is it. There is no sense of peace and continuity observed; and not even the expected eternity. A sort of uncertainty prevails. Nobody knows what will happen next, and let us just assume the poet herself did not know either. But what she knew was — through her poem, the readers could get a vision of the two different sides of the same coin so that they can acknowledge the mystery of the universal order, and can have individual standpoints. How intriguing is that!

I Died For Beauty—But Was Scarce is a wonderful poem that shows how life and death are interconnected, and how one can be looked at through the lens of the other. Besides incorporating readers and audience, this also allows the poet to represent herself as a creative entity who can address issues that are otherwise impossible to portray. The contradictory ideas of life and death help create a polar spectrum that allows the reader to see a sharp binary of the poet’s view. Emily Dickinson, by this masterpiece, has not only expressed the thematic concerns for literary purposes, but also her actual attraction and sentiment towards the undetermined ways of the rhythm of nature; and this hit me hard. 

There is so much to talk about this lady’s creation, but a few words will not be enough to do justice to her unique ideas. One needs to fully indulge in her works to feel the depth of her writings in the bones. Who knows, it might help you turn into a gothic poet like her. 


Full poem for the readers: m.poemhunter.com/poem-amp/i-died-for-beauty/


Fiana thinks of herself as a human-ish, who wants to count each of her steps on Earth just like she counts the pages of her books.


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