I Cannot Live With You as a Feminist Poem
Emily Dickinson was an American poet who was born Amherst, Massachusetts, to a successful family with a strong social background She lived an introverted and isolated life which affected her poems and writing style. Not only had Dickinson’s works ruptured the boundaries between women’s and men’s traditional writing style, but also she mixed up her individuality with her traditional self which gives her poems a certain uniqueness. The second wave of feminism created greater cultural empathy (feeling in oneself the feelings of others), for her as a female poet.
In our society, women are taught that their looks are of more important concern, and they are trained to nurture softness and inauthenticity to appear more pleasing to others specially men. They are rarely independent and declined to practice reason. From this very perspective we can begin our analysis of I Cannot Live With You as a rebellious voice of a woman who refuses to live with her beloved man. The very idea of refusing a conjugal life by a woman, as it reflects in the very first line of the poem, has a feminist tone. The speaker, who is a woman, despises the life with her lover as she feels that it will be a life of passive existence
“It would be Life –
And Life is over there –
Behind the Shelf.”
In the first three stanzas, the female self in the speaker, clearly declares that though the conjugal life with her lover with be called a life but she has n interest in such life as she will have no access to that life; she will be a mere figurine, ‘Behind the self,’ a ‘Porceline-Like a cup’, locked up by the Sexton. The use of the “Sexton” to describe the one who has control of the speaker’s life suggests that the speaker believes herself to be dead already, figuratively. Somehow, the speaker does not feel in control of her own life, but at the mercy of one who might dig her up out of the grave.
Between the second and third stanzas, the enjambment (pausing on “cup”) compounded with the dash, which emphasizes the pause and line break, allows life to be hopefully like a “cup” for the fraction of a second it takes the reader to make it to the next line, where it is discarded “of the housewife.” Now, the porcelain or decorative cup is something that is “discarded by the “housewife”. The one in control of the speaker’s life has switched from the Sexton to the housewife, and now she is discarded as though she were “quaint and outdated or broken. She sees herself being replaced by newer models as the old around her “crack”. someone or something outside of her is control ling her life. She compares these forces to a Sexton and then to a housewife. At this point in I Cannot Live With You, she anticipates feeling broken and discarded. This is one of her reasons for claiming that she cannot live with the person to whom she speaks. The first reason is that it would bring her life which she believes she cannot obtain. The second reason is that she believes she would eventually be discarded and replaced with someone new. Her self-respect as a woman prompts her to refuse such humiliation.
Feminism demands equal right for women beside men. In this poem, the speaker seeks her equal right not only to live with her lover, but also to die with him but that also has been denied to her. –
“And I – Could I stand by
And see You – freeze –
Without my Right of Frost –
Here, the speaker expresses her disdain at the thought of watching her lover die. She claims that she could not stand by” and watch her lover “freeze”. If she were ever subjected to such tragedy, she should think she has a right to die herself. This is what she calls “death’s privilege”. Yet, she knows that life does not work that way.
The speaker, then focuses on the aspect of a ‘rise’ together. Here, ‘rise’ stands for ‘resurrection’. She says that she does not find any possibility of such ‘rise’. Here we find a clear denial of religious faith by the speaker. She claims that she could not wish to be with him at the final resurrection because this person’s face “would put out Jesus'”. This is quite a shocking claim. The speaker obviously believes that the face of Jesus should shine the brightest at the final resurrection. But, she believes if she were to rise again with one whom she had loved in life, that person’s face would outshine that of Jesus.
Her atheist mind further denies greatness of Paradise, as she calls it ‘sordid excellence’. She denies the religious belief of the “Judgement Day”, as there will not be an equal share of her with her male counterpart. She says
“Where You were not –
That self – Were Hell to Me –“
As she knows that the domestic as well the religious spheres will not allow her to live with her lover according to her own wish, she concludes the poem with a proposal of mutual separation.
“So We must meet apart –
You there – I – here –
With just the Door ajar
That Oceans are – and Prayer –
And that White Sustenance –
She tells him, “You there- I here”, thus stating that they would be better off remaining apart, for they were sure to part ways either in this life or the next. She claims that they would always be apart with just the door ajar” between them, making it seem as though there were oceans and prayer separating them. It is interesting that she uses “oceans” and “prayer” in the same line to explain to her love what is separating them. It is almost as if his prayer and his faith causes there to be chasms like oceans between the two, for his faith is something she believes she can never understand. These feelings bring to her heart a feeling that she can only describe as “white sustenance”. That feeling is despair.