Text of the Poem

I 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—the two 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.

Footnotes

  1. The speaker suggests that death has covered up their names and that their voices have been lost. However, what is ironic is that the poem is being read and their voices have already been preserved in writing. The speaker tells us from the beginning of the poem that they are dead, so they have been speaking from beyond the grave for the entirety of the poem. This further cements the poem’s theme that death need not be scary or sad. It is merely a fact of life, and our ideas may persist after our bodies die.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  2. The moss covering up the names of the men is a metaphor for death because it invokes the image of moss growing thick on a headstone. Death erases the identities of the men. However, note that we have never been given the real names of the men, and that they have been identified as “beauty” and “truth.” It is not only the men who have died, or those who have died with these principles, but these two principles themselves.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  3. Notice that the imagery of the “moss” covering the lips of the two here is one of the very few instances of nature we get in the poem. The imagery here brings death into the real, physical world rather than the abstract. This emphasizes the mortality of the speakers in a metaphor for death. Nature eventually takes over and covers all in silence.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  4. The imagery of the “night” calls to mind darkness, specifically the eternal darkness that comes with death. As night also signals the ending of the daylight hours, this image carries connotations of limited time—time drawing to a close just as the poem does. We are reminded of the limited amount of time the speaker has to talk to his kinsman, and of the limited amount of time we have on earth.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  5. A “kinsmen” is “a man of one’s own kin; a relative by blood.” Much like the term “brethren” the man again suggests the close relationship between “truth” and “beauty” by describing the two as close “kin.”

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  6. The term “brethren” means “a male sibling or other male relative.” This word suggests that both the speaker and the person who died of “truth” are brothers or close relatives. However, the term “brethren” can also be used more generally to mean “a comrade.” While Keats’ poem suggests that truth and beauty are a single entity, this characterization of their relationship suggests that Dickinson separates the two ideas. It is unclear exactly why Dickinson does this other than another instance in which the readers are allowed to interpret the meaning as they will.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  7. Notice that in the previous line, the man says that “truth” and “beauty” are one, echoing Keats once again. However, consider that in this line, the man uses the pronoun “we,” which now directly identifies their respective ideals as “truth” and “beauty.” Dickinson thus personifies these ideals. These two people are no longer distinguishable from what they died “for”; rather it is as if both “truth” and “beauty” have died.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  8. Dickinson uses simple and straight-forward language to convey complex ideas. Much like the seemingly simple urn in Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” Dickinson’s art says more about the mysteries of life in its simplicity than a lengthy scientific explanation could. The style of the language contributes to this theme.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  9. Notice that the conversation between the speaker and the other man takes on a very nonchalant tone. It seems as if it is simply another ordinary day and the two have met by happenstance and engaged in casual conversation. In making their deaths seem more normal, Dickinson again makes death seem less ominous and frightening.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  10. Dickinson’s focus on “truth” and “beauty” recalls the 19th-century English poet John Keats. In Keats’s famous poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn”, Keats meditates on the relationship between beauty and truth—art and human knowledge—and ultimately ends on the note that the two are one in the same. One interpretation of this parallel is that art has the ability to convey aspects of the human experience that science never can. The death of beauty and art would thus mean the death of truth.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  11. The verb “failed” here can be interpreted in a few different ways. On the one hand, “fail” can mean “to come to an end,” in this case, speaking to the literal end of one’s life. On the other hand, one can “fail” at something. Which in this case could suggest the “failure” of the speaker and the man to live up to the ideals of “beauty” and “truth,” or that to die for these ideals ultimately means that you have failed at helping them endure.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  12. “Softly” creates a relaxing, quiet, and unalarming tone. Although the poem describes the deaths of two people, which might seem mysterious and ominous, Dickinson’s use of the term “softly” contradicts this. Death here feels quiet and even possibly comforting, rather than scary or morose. This kind of contrast between darkness and light, odd eeriness and regularity, is characteristic of Dickinson’s poetry. She often uses seemingly opposing themes, imagery, and wording to reveal and reflect on the mysteries of life.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  13. Dickinson’s use of the word “room” to describe the “tomb” that this man is buried in, brings death into the realm of the ordinary. The word conveys normality, as if death or the grave is simply another “room” one will visit when their days have come to an end. The vision of death that this poem presents is not a tragic one, but an inevitable fact of life.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  14. Notice that the term “adjusted” conveys a casual tone, which is interesting considering that the speaker has just died and been buried. The matter-of-fact language here recalls the way in which one might talk about “adjusting” to the change in weather, or a new job. Dickinson’s casual style of language makes the poem read like a recounting of an everyday experience that is not to be feared, rather than an eerie, ominous vision of death.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  15. The term “adjusted” in a literal sense means “arranged or positioned properly,” which might allude to the speaker’s physical position in the grave. The speaker has literally just been placed in their grave when someone else is “lain/ In an adjoining room.” In a figurative sense, the term “adjusted” means “grown accustomed to” or “adapted.” In this reading, the speaker could be saying something like: “I had barely grown accustomed to my burial, when someone was buried near me.”

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  16. The adverb “scarce” means “barely, only just, or not quite.” The speaker may have “only just” been “adjusted” or “buried” in the tomb, or have barely “adjusted” to the reality of their death.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  17. Notice that the speaker says that they “died for beauty” and not of beauty. If someone has “died for” something, they have “died in the name of” or “died in order to achieve” something. This suggests that “beauty” is not necessarily the cause of death, but rather that the speaker died for the cause of “beauty” itself.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  18. The first line of the poem is paradoxical: the speaker is dead, yet speaking. Dickinson often uses paradoxes in her poetry to manipulate tone. In this case, the first two words give the poem an immediate tone of mystery, but the reader is asked to accept the reality one can speak from beyond the grave. Dickinson uses this strategy to reflect on the meaning of death from a perspective that has already experienced it. Thus, she is able to reach beyond the limits of “truth” or human knowledge, a theme throughout the rest of the poem.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  19. ED's image of moss covering up the two who died for Truth and Beauty equally indicates that, as she said in the second paragraph, "the two are one."  Or, more likely, ED believes that when they died, their truth and beauty died with them--there is no sense of those attributes surviving death.

    — Stephen Holliday
  20. ED may be alluding in this poem to Shelley's poem "Ode on a Grecian Urn," which includes the enigmatic lines "Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty."

    She frames the poem, of course, as a death scene, a common motif in ED's poetry.  The implication of the second stanza is that Truth and Beauty are, certainly after death, either equally unimportant or equally important.

    — Stephen Holliday