I died for beauty but was scarce

Emily Dickinson

‘I died for beauty but was scarce’ by Emily Dickinson reflects her fascination for death and the possible life to follow.

Emily Dickinson

Nationality: America

Emily Dickinson redefined American poetry with unique line breaks and unexpected rhymes.

Notable works include 'Because I could not stop for Death' and 'Hope is the Thing with Feathers.' 

Key Poem Information

Central Message: Truth and beauty are connected

Speaker: Someone who died for "truth" and someone who died for "beauty"

Emotions Evoked: Contentment, Resilience

Poetic Form: Quatrain

Time Period: 19th Century

Dickinson tries to answer the all important question of 'What is the most important thing in life?" in this poem.

‘I died for beauty but was scarce’ is an allegorical work set in a tomb, where a person who died for beauty interacts briefly with someone who died for truth. The poem reveals her supreme mastery and skill in presenting her themes. She uses elegant terminologies to support her ideas. The ultimate effect of this poem is to show that every aspect of human life is erased by death.

I died for Beauty - but was scarce
Emily Dickinson

I died for Beauty - but was scarceAdjusted in the TombWhen One who died for Truth, was lainIn 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 -
I died for beauty but was scarce by Emily Dickinson


I died for beauty but was scarce’ explores inner beauty and truth through the corpses in the tomb that discusses the respective cause of their death is truth and beauty.

Emily Dickinson’s poem ‘I died for beauty but was scarce’ is an allegorical work written in the form of a conversation between someone who died for beauty and the one who died for truth. After a brief conversation about why they died, the speaker declares that Truth and Beauty are the same and they are like “brethren”. The speaker concludes by stating that they met at night, “as Kinsmen,” and talked between their tombs.  As the moss creeps up, it reaches their lips and covers up the names on their tombstones, symbolizing the way of obliterating both her capacity to speak and her identity.


‘I died for beauty but was scarce’ deals with the themes of beauty and truth. Dickinson portrays them as parallel in various ways in the poem. The themes of death, beauty, and truth are frequent in Dickinson’s poem. As a metaphorical work in this poem, Beauty and Truth are given shape through two people who died and buried in the same tomb.

Form and Structure

‘I died for beauty but was scarce’ is a perfect example of Dickinson’s poetry is characteristically formal in style and regular in structure and rhythm. The poem follows a typical formal pattern of rhyme scheme ABCB. Written in three quatrains, the lines in every stanza follow a regular metrical structure. The four lines are uniformly structured as iambic tetrameter, iambic trimeter, iambic tetrameter, and iambic trimester that create a four-three-four-three stress pattern in each stanza.


‘I died for beauty but was scarce’ by Dickinson, though a short poem, it is filled with rich imagery. In the second stanza, the person “questioned softly “Why I failed”? that pictures his sensitive and anxious nature about approaching her. Also in the third stanza, the “Moss had reached our lips” and “covered up – our names” give the picture of how the decaying effect on these dead people. This ironically presents an image of the disappearing identity and memories of the dead people.

Literary and Poetic Techniques

In the poem I died for beauty but was scarce’ Dickinson incorporated various poetic techniques such as Metaphor, Symbol, Enjambment, and Irony.

Enjambment is when a line flows on into the next without punctuation and a change in the sense. In this poem, enjambed sentences challenge the readers to go on as used in lines 1 and 2, and 3. But the following lines in the poem end in dashes or with a question mark.

The dead ones who buried in the same tomb are metaphors for the idea of truth and beauty. They are called “brethren” for they share similar ideas that are connected like two sides of a coin.

Dickinson also uses symbols in the poem when she uses the terms “Moss” that seem to end the conversation between the two in the tomb. Also, the “Beauty” and “Truth” for which they died to symbolize perfection, and the “Death” symbolizes failure.

The Moss that move up that covers their lips is ironically presented to depict the idea that everything is equal in death. Also, the moss seems to erase their identity by hiding their names.

Analysis, Stanza by Stanza

Stanza One

I died for beauty, but was scarce

Adjusted in the tomb,

When one who died for truth was lain

In an adjoining room.

In the first stanza of ‘I died for beauty but was scarce’ the speaker introduces herself and goes on to speak about her companion in the tomb who died and joined for “Truth”. Just before Beauty is “Adjusted in the tomb” she receives company.  And, the speaker says that “in an adjoining room” another person is laid. This person seems to have died for truth. He may be a martyr or a soldier who died in the war. And the speaker could be a lover or a beautiful woman. Now, after their death, they both are put in the same tomb.

Stanza Two

He questioned softly why I failed?

“For beauty,” I replied.

“And I for truth – the two are one;

We brethren are,” he said.

He, the one who died for truth, starts his conversation, seeing another person in the tomb. Dickinson euphemistically addresses death as “failed”. The person seems to be sensitive and afraid to start a conversation, for he is worried that, what he asks may be painful for her. She answers simply: “For Beauty.” And, he responds by telling her that he died for truth, which makes them brethren. The two share an immediate kinship and mutual understanding that create respect and help them to identify with the other. Dickinson ends this stanza with a hyphen. This use of punctuation helps to carry forward the action and emotion of one stanza to the other.

Stanza Three

And so, as kinsmen met a-night,

We talked between the rooms,

Until the moss had reached our lips,

And covered up our names.

In the third stanza, the speaker continues with her narration. They have met like kinsmen at night and talked between their rooms. Their deaths for noble causes make them spiritually akin, which enable their communication. Like a found relationship where people do not run out of things to speak, the two keep communicating. Ironically, the conversation here happens between two corpses. But, this doesn’t go long for they are covered by moss. To make it clear, the decay ends their ability to speak. They are once again silenced by the natural cycle of life and death. The image of the moss cover the bodies’ mouths erases not only their names but their memories from the time.

Historical Context

The Romantic Period in American literature began in 1830, the same year Dickinson born. Also, she is associated with the Realistic Period in American literature, which lasted from 1865 to 1900. It emerged as a result of the Civil War and the nation facing economic, industrial, and intellectual change. She was the product of her time, place, and personality. The Realistic writers were less idealistic than their Romantic predecessors, and they were willing to both look at and write about, struggle on a collective or individual level. During this time Science challenged religion more directly, something that Dickinson understood. As a result, we see the impact of spiritual and scientific contradiction in her poetry.

Similar Poetry

Emily Dickinson, in her poetry, wrote about the things she knew and the ones that inspired her. Being a keen observer, she used universal themes dealing with the wonders of nature, the identity of the self, death, and immortality, and love. Death is often an undeniable element of her poetry. Some of her popular poems are:

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Miz Alb Poetry Expert
Miz Alb received her MA in English Literature. Her thirst for literature makes her explore through the nuances of it. She loves reading and writing poetry. She teaches English Language and Literature to the ESL students of tertiary level.
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