Identity and Ideology Beyond Death in Emily Dickinson's Poem “I Died for Beauty”

Identity and Ideology Beyond Death in Emily Dickinson's Poem “I Died for Beauty”

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Emily Dickinson had a fascination with death and mortality throughout her life as a writer. She wrote many poems that discussed what it means not only to die, but to be dead. According to personal letters, Dickinson seems to have remained agnostic about the existence of life after death. In a letter written to Mrs. J. G. Holland, Emily implied that the presence of death alone is what makes people feel the need for heaven: “If roses had not faded, and frosts had never come, and one had not fallen here and there whom I could not waken, there were no need of other Heaven than the one below.” (Bianchi 83). Even though she was not particularly religious, she was still drawn to the mystery of the afterlife. Her poetry is often contemplative of the effect or tone that death creates, such as the silence, decay, and feeling of hopelessness. In the poem “I died for beauty,” Dickinson expresses the effect that death has on one's identity and ability to impact the world for his or her ideals.

I have heard people say that Emily Dickinson used dashes whenever she could not find the words to fully express what she meant. While this is true in one sense, it is preposterous in another. Dickinson's careful and clever choice of words does not seem to be consistent with someone who would simply enter a dash once at a loss for words. Punctuation is a necessary tool for all writers to create an effect that words alone can not. In “I died for beauty,” the dashes force the reader to pause at certain moments to intensify the suspense and sheer gravitas of what is being said. For example, in the opening line “I died for Beauty—but was scarce,” there is no word that could be placed in this line to more strongly convey the narrator's death for beauty to ...

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... moss reached [their] lips,” which is to say that time silenced their voices when people began to forget about them, or stopped caring about the things they wrote. Inevitably, the moss “covered up – [their] names.” The moss covered the names inscribed on their tombs. It is a dreadful thing to consider the likelihood that beyond a few generations, one's existence will be completely unknown. Time covers up your identity, and everything will go on just as if you had never existed. Perhaps this further explains the reason why death for truth or beauty is a failure.

Works Cited
Bianchi, Martha Dickinson. “The Life and Letters of Emily Dickinson.” New York: Biblo and Tannen Publishers, 1972.
Dickinson, Emily. “I died for beauty.” The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms. Ed. Mark Strand and Eavan Boland. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2000.

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