I Cannot Live With You by Emily Dickinson
Table of Contents
“I Cannot Live With You” was published in 1890. Emily Dickinson tries to communicate with her lover through this poem, and she reaches the conclusion that they should be apart because she sees him as this great being that is capable of anything and is to move onto Heaven once it’s the right time.
In “I Cannot Live with You,” which was published in 1890, the speaker talks to her lover. This is a poem about a couple’s hopeless love story. It may relate to Dickinson’s real life since she did have a relationship with a man. Although it was never presented as more than a friendship, she did have a profound connection with someone and after he left, Dickinson went on to live in almost complete isolation and she never married. The speaker gave up the best life she could have had because she wanted her lover to have the best life, since he died before her, and now, she cannot be with him ever again. She thinks she cannot be with him even in the hereafter, but this causes her to want to die, although she knows this will not solve her emotions.
Dickinson uses quite powerful imagery to get her point across. One line, “I cannot die with you, for one must wait to shut the others’ gaze down” shows that she is the only one who can shut his eyes, he cannot shut hers. However, once he passes away, she can no longer live. So, they cannot die together. Another line, “And were you saved. And I condemned to be where you were not, that self were hell to me,” explains that Dickinson wants the readers to picture a strong woman who whole-heartedly believes in Christ.
However, Dickinson tells the readers that if the speaker were saved and her lover was lost, she would be lost in hell without him, and if they were both saved but saved separately, then that would also mean hell for her. This is why her lover cannot live in hell with her.
I Cannot Live With You Summary
This poem’s coherence results from the opposition of tensions that arise from Dickinson’s dual understanding of life. To live with the beloved is impossible, for “it would be life.” Life is, on the other hand, something eternal, the key to which resides with the church sexton, who keeps the key to the Lord’s tabernacle. The cups of human life, however, hold no sacramental wine; the housewife discards them when they break or crack and replaces them with newer ware.
The speaker cannot die with the beloved, for the gaze of “the Other” intrudes; it can be shut neither out nor down. This apparent rival that spies on any possible pact is the metaphysical divine other that has first rights in matters of death as well as life. Similarly, it is impossible for the speaker to “stand by! And see you-freeze”; the single death of the beloved denies death to the devoted speaker
Even a joint resurrection of the lovers is impossible; this would anger Jesus and obscure the face of the redeemer. To this dual understanding of life the poet thus adds the stages of the Christian experience: life, death, judgment and resurrection. When the beloved looked upon the “homesick Eye,” grace would “Glow plain,” but it would be “foreign” to him who sought a higher grace. Furthermore, “They d judge Us,” saying that he sought to serve Heaven even though she could not.
The speaker could then no longer have her eyes on paradise; both would suffer damnation, but she would fall the lower, and they would still be apart. The effect would be the same even if the beloved were forgiven. The only alternative, “Despair,” becomes their connection; their only conversation is their joint prayer, which allows them to link the immanent and the transcendent.
I Cannot Live With You Line by Line Analysis
I cannot Live with you: The title of the poem is the first line of the poem itself. It is very interesting because the readers are drawn to the main theme of the poem-why the speaker, a woman, cannot live with her beloved man.
Gist: The speaker rejects to live with her beloved person because it would be “life,” but life which is confined or restricted. She uses the metaphor of life as porcelain locked up by the sexton. She refers to being together in this world as “our life,” a life locked up, not free, without passion or expression. The cup metaphor is expanded from the sexton to the housewife, who prefers Sevres. This extension to the housewife suggests that the conditions and values of society are hostile to a passion like theirs.
I cannot live with You – I Cannot Live With You opens with this curious line The speaker is addressing a person and telling that person that she cannot live there with him.
It would be Life …Behind the Shelf: She tells him that to live with him “would be life”. It seems strange that she would not want to live with him if she herself admits that to live with him would be life itself. But then she goes into deeper detail. She claims that “life is over there and describes it as being something behind the shelf”. It is almost as if the speaker does not believe herself to have access to life.
Sexton: a church official whose duties include maintaining church property digging graves, ringing the church bells. In the days of the gravedigger and the church yard watcher, people were occasionally buried alive. It is a terrifying Idea, and because of this the safety coffin was patented. The safety coffin had a bell the person inside could ring if for some reason he or she woke up to find themselves buried alive. The gravedigger, if he heard a bell ringing, would dig up the grave. N.B. 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.
His Porcelain- I Like a Cup – This reveals that the Sexton symbolizes God in I Cannot Live With You. However, the speaker does not portray a loving God that allows people to live, but one that seems to keep people in their graves, or on a shelf like a porcelain figurine or a decorative cup which gives him pleasure to look at, to own.
Discarded– thrown away. This stanza brings a shift of tone. The reader becomes aware that the words connect with the previous stanza in a way that brings in an entirely different meaning. Now, the porcelain or decorative cup is something that is “discarded” by the “housewife”.
Sevres– The one in control of the speaker’s life has switched from the Sexton to the housewife, and now the poetess is discarded as though she were “quaint” and outdated or broken.
Quaint-attractively unusual or old-fashioned.
Sèrves– a type of fine porcelain characterized by elaborate decoration on backgrounds of intense colour, made at Sèvres in the suburbs of Paris.
A newer Sevres pleases -/ Old Ones crack – The poetess sees herself being replaced by newer models as the old around her “crack”. 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 – life which she believes she cannot obtain. The second reason is that she believes she would eventually be discarded and replaced with someone new.
N.B. At this point, it is important to remember that I Cannot Live With You began with the refusal to live with someone. That someone, perhaps a lover, would offer the speaker life. But the speaker does not believe that life is accessible to her. She believes that it is meant to be something distant. She is not sure exactly why she believes this, other than the firm belief that someone or something outside of her is controlling her life. She compares these forces to a Sexton and then to a housewife.
Gist: They can’t die together because she has to perform the last act which the living perform for the dead, closing his eyes. She knows he would be incapable of performing that act for her. On the other hand, she cannot continue living once he dies, she uses metaphors of cold (“frost” and “freeze”) for death. She regards death as her “right” and a “privilege,” thereby making death a desirable state. Nevertheless, because death would separate them, their dying together is impossible.
I could not die – with You – the woman is not only refusing to live with her beloved man, but she is also refusing to die with him.
For One must wait/ To shut the other’s Gaze down – She claims that she cannot live with this person, and then she claims that she cannot die with him. She offers a few reasons for this refusal as well. She claims that one person must wait to die until after the other person has died. After all, someone had to be there to shut the eyes of their beloved dead. She cannot stand the sight and pain of his death,
You – could not – The woman also adds that if she had died before him, her lover, the act of closing the eyes would be impossible for him also.
And I – Could I stand by! And see You – freeze -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”.
freeze – here it symbolizes death. Without my Right of Frost -/ Death’s privilege? – 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”.
N.B. Yet, she knows that life does not work that way. This is yet another reason she offers in defence of her choice not to live with her beloved man.
Gist: The woman here, denies even to rise with him after death. The Grace referred to can be seen as Jesus’s promise that the dead will rise from their graves to life everlasting, Her total absorption in her beloved, his importance for her, would relegate Jesus to secondary status: her lover’s face would outshine Jesus’s. In addition, she would be homesick unless her beloved were near her. So resurrection together is impossible.
Nor could I rise – with You – After contemplating her own refusal to love and watch her lover die, she then explains that she could not “rise with him. Because she has already mentioned death, the word “rise” here refers to resurrection. N.B. During Dickinson’s time period, most of the people around her believed not only in the resurrection of Jesus Christ as the basis of the Christian faith, but they also believed in what is referred to as the final resurrection, in which all who believed in Jesus would rise from the dead.
Because Your Face/ Would put out Jesus’ – 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. The speaker clearly believes that this would not be right, and thus she uses this as yet another reason for her refusal to marry the person to whom she speaks.
That Net Grace– The grace in the face of Jesus.
Glow plain– become dim or unattractive. Here, the verb ‘glow’ takes the subject “That New Grace’ from the previous stanza, meaning ‘the grace in the face of Jesus Christ would seem unattractive’ Glow plain and foreign On my homesick Eye -Here, the speaker expresses her feelings toward the faith that surrounds her. She continues to describe the final resurrection and her feelings toward it-namely that it would “glow plain- and foreign”. She admits that the idea does not excite her. Rather, it all seems rather foreign to her. Her description of her “homesick eye” suggests that rather than looking forward to the new heaven and new earth as Christians were taught to do, she would miss the old earth.
Except that you than He/ Shone closer by – The capitalization of the word “You” suggests that the speaker sees the person to whom she speaks as being as important as God himself. The juxtaposition of the capitalized “He’ and “You” supports this idea, as well as her claim that the one to whom she speaks “shone closer by” than God himself. The speaker implies that she believes these feelings are wrong, and yet she has them all the same. These are her reasons for refusing to live with him.
- Stanzas 8-11
Gist: As is appropriate to the topic of eternity, this grouping of four stanzas is the longest in the poem. Initially, she imagines he would be saved, because he served or tried to serve God; she did not, implying that she would probably not be saved. One reading of “saturated sight is that she could see only him (that is, she cares only for or is completely absorbed in him), consequently, she does not care for the glories of Paradise. It is surprising, even shocking, that she describes Paradise as “sordid.” Sordid, today generally means dirty or depressingly wretched; an older meaning is having an inferior nature. Paradise is sordid in comparison to the joys of her relationship with her beloved. She will not accept heaven without him, and she regards any separation from him as itself “hell.”
They’d judge Us – Probably, it is a reference to the ‘Final Judgement’. It is unclear whether “They refers to the Holy Trinity or the other people at the final resurrection, or whether she has reverted back to the present time period and is referring to their friends and family.
They’d judge Us -…I could not – With these words, the speaker gives more insight into her refusal. It appears that she sees this person as one who serves God, and she knows that she cannot. She believes that she cannot be worthy of him because she has no desire to serve heaven.
Because You saturated Sight – The woman implies that her lover has saturated her sight. She has no more desire to look for a higher world, even Paradise.
And I had no more Eyes … As Paradise – The speaker continues to give her reasons for her refusal, claiming that the one to whom she speaks is able to see but she herself “had no more eyes”. Specifically, she claims that she has no eyes for paradise.
Sordid excellence– referring to Paradise. It is surprising, even shocking that she describes Paradise as “sordid.” Sordid, today, generally means dirty or depressingly wretched; an older meaning is having an inferior nature Paradise is sordid in comparison to the joys of her relationship with her beloved
N.B. As a Christian is often taught to keep his eyes set on paradise, this description of herself further allows the speaker to explain that she has interest in faith and no eyes or heart for heaven. She believes this to be in contrast with the heart of the one she speaks to.
And were You lost, I would be – Thought My Name…On the Heavenly fame – And were You lost-If the beloved person is condemned in the heaven I would be- The woman says she would be also lost or herself would decide to be condemned.
N.B. The speaker enters into the hypothetical, supposing that even if the one she loves is “lost”, she would be lost as well.
And were You – saved the speaker then enters into a possibility which contradicts the one proposed in the previous stanza.
And were You – saved — And I – condemned to be : She suggests that if the one she loves is “saved” then she is still “condemned”. Where You were not-/That self – Were Hell to Me – She will not accept heaven without him, and she regards any separation from him as itself “hell.”
Gist: The only possibility left is to live apart, a partially open door allowing their only contact. “Oceans” suggests a great separation physically, turning to prayer would seem to be futile in view of her rejection of resurrection and Paradise. All that is left to support them in their love is despair
So We must meet apart -After having explored every possible ending to the marriage from life together, to death, to the final resurrection, to judgement day, the speaker concludes that in any case, they would end up parting ways. You there – I-here-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.
With just the Door ajar! That Oceans are – and Prayer –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.
And that White Sustenance – The utilitarian “Sustenance, the nourishment that keeps a person alive for a time, indicates a fleeting provision to the speaker. It is unsustainable, and even while it is there, it is not rich, or truly satisfying. This “White Sustenance” is also immediately followed up by “Despair and this is how the poem ends. So it is clear then that the love has not led to a happy ending, nor has it even truly been resolved.
Despair– “Despair – occupies its own line, indicating the singular, resounding effect it has on the speaker. It also does not conclude the poem decisively – rather than ending the thought with a period, which would create a certain finality, the line ends once again with a dash. Ending on this pause emphasizes the silence once again, but also leaves the poem, in a sense, unfinished, just as the relationship is.