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“I cannot live with You” is a poem by Emily Dickinson, where the speaker expresses his love is overpowering and they cannot live together. The speaker is too afraid of being separated from his beloved in the afterlife, preferring the “Despair” of parting now. This poem was first published in the posthumous collection Poems (1890).
About the poet
Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was an American poet born in Amherst, Massachusetts, in 1830. She was known for her unique, short-lined, and unconventional poetry, often dealing with themes of death, immortality, aesthetics, society, nature, and spirituality. Her work became public after she died in 1886, with her first collection published in 1890. However, her work has been censored to exclude her sister-in-law, Susan.
I cannot live with You – It would be Life – And Life is over there – Behind the Shelf
Emily Dickinson’s poem “I Cannot Live With You” explores the speaker’s dilemma of coexisting with someone she loves, viewing their existence as distant and inaccessible, symbolizing a barrier that separates them from their desired life.
The poem explores the speaker’s complex emotions of love and longing, highlighting the impossibility of their union due to external circumstances, societal norms, or death. The metaphor of “Life” as something “Behind the Shelf” symbolizes the unattainable nature of their desired life together. Dickinson’s poetry explores the tension between love and separation, desire and impossibility, and the profound impact of these emotions on the human experience.
The Sexton keeps the Key to – Putting up Our Life – His Porcelain – Like a Cup –
The speaker refers to a “Sexton” in these lines who is in charge of an important part of their lives. It is stated that The Sexton possesses “the Key to” a process that involves “Putting up Our Life.” This procedure is compared figuratively to handling porcelain, notably “His Porcelain – Like a Cup.”
The poem by Emily Dickinson explores fate, mortality, and the fragile nature of human existence. The Sexton, a church official, may symbolize fate, destiny, or a force beyond human control. The phrase “Putting up Our Life” implies that the Sexton holds the power to determine the speaker’s life’s fate or destiny. The use of porcelain as a metaphor highlights the fragility and delicacy of life, comparing it to porcelain, which can be easily broken. These lines, like much of Dickinson’s poetry, explore existential questions and the mysteries of life and death. Sexton’s powerlessness and lack of control are central to the poem’s themes.
Discarded of the Housewife – Quaint – or Broke – A newer Sevres pleases – Old Ones crack –
In these lines, the speaker refers to the process of discarding old home items, especially using the example of old Sevres porcelain. The speaker observes that objects that are thrown away may be viewed as “Broke” (broken) or “Quaint” (charmingly old-fashioned). Meanwhile, newer Sevres porcelain is preferable because older ones break easily.
The poem refers to the act of discarding or replacing old household items, with the word “Quaint” suggesting a charming old-fashioned or picturesque quality. The word “Broke” implies that some discarded items may no longer be usable. The speaker contrasts newer Sevres porcelain with old ones, contrasting their elegance and craftsmanship with their tendency to crack. This metaphor highlights the transience of material possessions and the human tendency to discard or replace items with signs of wear or damage, even if they once held sentimental or historical value. The poem offers readers the opportunity to explore deeper meanings and relate these themes to broader aspects of life and human nature.
I could not die – with You – For One must wait To shut the Other's Gaze down – You – could not –
In these lines, the speaker considers death about a loved one. The speaker expresses the belief that they cannot die at the same time as their loved one since one of them must stay alive to close the other person’s eyes after death. This implies a strong bond and sense of accountability between the two individuals.
The speaker believes that they cannot die simultaneously with their loved ones, indicating a strong emotional bond. They must wait for the other to pass away before they can die, implying a sense of duty. The act of “shutting the Other’s Gaze down” after death is a tender and intimate act associated with caring for someone in their final moments. The speaker also asserts that their loved one could not die simultaneously, reinforcing the connection between them. The poem raises questions about human connection and the powerful emotions associated with loss and mortality.
And I – could I stand by And see You – freeze – Without my Right of Frost – Death's privilege?
In these lines, the speaker struggles with the idea of standing by their loved one’s suffering or freezing and instead being forced to watch helplessly from a distance. In addition, the speaker refers to “my Right of Frost,” which can represent the difference between the warmth of existence and the coldness or detachedness that death brings.
The speaker questions their ability to stand by their loved ones, expressing their powerlessness to alleviate their suffering. The phrase “without my Right of Frost” suggests they want to share in their suffering as if it were their privilege. The line ends with a question mark, suggesting uncertainty about the power of death in causing suffering. This suggests that death is an inevitable and uncontrollable force. The speaker grapples with the helplessness of witnessing suffering without fully understanding or sharing it, highlighting the profound emotions associated with love, mortality, and the limits of human connection.
Nor could I rise – with You –Because Your Face Would put out Jesus' – That New Grace
In these lines, the speaker laments their inability to join their loved one in death since the beauty or radiance of their loved one’s face surpasses that of Jesus, symbolizing a unique and unparalleled grace.
The speaker contemplates joining their loved one in death but feels a sense of impediment. The speaker uses vivid imagery to express the radiant beauty of their loved one’s face, suggesting it would surpass the grace of Jesus. The phrase “put out Jesus” suggests their loved one’s grace is even greater than Jesus’, highlighting the transcendent nature of their presence. These lines reflect a deep, intense attachment to their loved one, surpassing even religious or divine figures. They demonstrate the power of love and the impact of an individual on the speaker’s life.
Glow plain – and foreign On my homesick Eye – Except that You than He Shone closer by –
The speaker describes a scene in which something shines brightly and is unexpected to them, potentially reflecting an unusual place or experience, in these lines. The speaker realizes that their loved one shines even brighter and closer to them than anything else amidst this foreign glow.
The speaker uses the word “glow” to describe a radiant, bright illumination, suggesting a new environment or experience. The speaker’s “homesick eye” indicates a longing for something familiar, suggesting they are in a different place. Despite the foreign glow, their loved one shines brighter and physically closer to them, reaffirming their love’s enduring presence in their life. This theme highlights the comforting presence of their loved one, even in unfamiliar or foreign settings, providing solace and familiarity in an otherwise unfamiliar world.
They'd judge Us – How – For You – served Heaven – You know, Or sought to – I could not –
The speaker reflects on how others would view their union in the afterlife. The loved one, “You,” can be seen as having served or sought Heaven, implying a noble and righteous life. The speaker, however, feels unworthy or unable to do the same.
The speaker acknowledges the possibility of being judged by others, possibly representing societal or moral standards. They highlight the virtues and righteousness of their loved one, who served Heaven or sought to do so. The speaker admits their limitations and inadequacies, believing they cannot measure up to their loved one’s virtuous life. This theme of inadequacy and self-doubt highlights the speaker’s belief that they would be judged negatively in the afterlife due to their perceived difference in righteousness. This reflects a sense of humility and self-awareness.
Because You saturated Sight – And I had no more Eyes For sordid excellence As Paradise
The speaker admits that their loved one, “You,” had such an impact on their perception (“saturated Sight”) that they could no longer perceive or appreciate worldly pursuits of “sordid excellence.” Instead, their experience with their loved ones made everything in life seem like paradise, even the ordinary things.
The speaker attributes their altered perception to the influence of their loved one, who saturated their vision, leaving no room for other influences. They have no more eyes, a shift in perspective due to their love for the person addressed as “You.” The speaker contrasts “sordid excellence” with “Paradise,” implying that after experiencing their loved one, worldly pursuits lose their appeal and significance, making even the simplest aspects of life feel like paradise. These lines emphasize the transformative power of love on one’s perception and values, making even ordinary things seem like paradise.
And were You lost, I would be – Though My Name Rang loudest On the Heavenly fame –
The speaker proclaims that if a loved one, “You,” were to be lost or separated from them, they would gladly share in that loss, even if their name was to be considered most prominently in heaven’s fame.
The speaker expresses their deep love for their loved one, expressing a sense of loss if they were lost. They acknowledge the possibility of their name being celebrated in heaven, despite their earthly accomplishments. They are willing to sacrifice their fame for their beloved, highlighting the selflessness and depth of their love. This emphasizes the importance of emotional connection over personal achievements and earthly distinctions, emphasizing the importance of love over personal achievements. The speaker’s willingness to sacrifice their fame for their loved one demonstrates their commitment to their love.
And were You – saved – And I – condemned to be Where You were not – That self – were Hell to Me –
According to the speaker, being separated from a loved one who has been saved or redeemed while they themselves have been condemned to be somewhere else where they are not would be a personal hell for them.
The speaker discusses their relationship with their loved ones, highlighting the emotional impact of being separated from them. They imagine their fate as being condemned to a different place, where the absence of their loved one intensifies their pain. The speaker concludes that their separation from the loved one is a form of hell, as it is not the external conditions that define hell but the absence of the loved one. The speaker’s happiness and well-being are deeply tied to the presence and well-being of the loved one, highlighting the profound nature of their love and attachment.
So We must meet apart – You there – I – here – With just the Door ajar That Oceans are – and Prayer –And that White Sustenance – Despair –
The speaker acknowledges the physical separation between themselves and their beloved but emphasizes the presence of a spiritual connection. They describe the distance to great oceans, yet even though they are physically apart, the “Door” is still slightly open, enabling them to communicate with the beloved through prayer and sustaining their hope and confidence in him.
The poem explores the physical separation between the speaker and their beloved, highlighting the individuality and distinct presence of each. The speaker acknowledges the necessity of separation, with the words “You” and “I” emphasizing the distance. A symbolic “Door ajar” suggests communication or connection, even if it’s not fully open. The comparison to oceans highlights the vastness of the distance, but “Prayer” suggests a means of spiritual connection. The idea of “White Sustenance” may refer to hope or faith, which sustains the speaker despite despair. The poem uses vivid imagery and symbolism to explore love and separation, capturing the complex emotions associated with separation.