In his essay “The Language of Paradox”, Cleanth Brooks states that “Paradox is the language appropriate and inevitable to poetry” and furthermore “…the paradoxes spring from the very nature of the poet’s language: it is a language in which the connotations play as great a part as the denotations”. This theory provides us a unique lens into which we can interpret and understand a short poem by Emily Dickinson: “I died for beauty”.
The first four words of the poem “I died for beauty” immediately alert and grip us that a dead person is talking. Besides that, he is talking about a sought-after human quality “beauty”. By closer examination, we may sense that “for” does not just mean “to gain, in order to obtain”, but with a secondary meaning of “on behalf of”, or even “embodying”. This sense of personification of “beauty” allows the co-existence of the dead and the living, the body and the spirit. The last two lines of the first stanza introduce “truth”, another constantly sought-after theme in human history. After reading the first stanza, we find ourselves start to contemplate: what is life and death? Does spirit really exist? What is beauty and truth? How can qualities such as beauty and truth die?
The second stanza continues with two dead people or spirits having a normal conversation just as we would in our daily lives: what happened? Why did you fail? However, this easy-going chat between “beauty” and “truth” is far more thought-provoking than it seems on the surface as it brings back the universal theme of beauty and truth and ties them together with allusion to Keats’s “Beauty is truth, truth beauty” even they lie in separate rooms in the tomb.
The third stanza gives some chilling answers to the questions in our mind, especially “how can beauty and truth be dead?” They are forgotten and died as we living breathing people are gathered together at night. This is depicted with simple words “kinsmen”, “met”, “a-night”, yet with numerous implications: how many of us have attended social functions where we were so bored of being talked at non-stop? How many of us have babbled all night long about things so trivial and unimportant? As we do so unconsciously, we let real things that matter such as “beauty” and “truth” slip out of our conscience and let them die gradually. The poem ends with a sad and horrifying image of living yet indifferent moss, or nature in general in its derived meaning, silencing and erasing the identity of two values humanity holds true.
In short, through the paradoxical and connotative nature of poetic language, this poem juxtaposes and reconciles ordinarily opposed elements: life and death, constancy and impermanence, nature and indifference, body and spirit; by doing so, the poem prompts us to meditate on age-old philosophical quests and question what is the true nature of our being and our world.
Brooks, Cleanth. “The Language of Paradox.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Malden: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2004. 28-39. Print.
I died for beauty
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.