By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘I cannot live with You’ is one of Emily Dickinson’s most famous poems, but like much of her greatest poetry, it eludes any easy or straightforward analysis. Somewhat unusually among Dickinson’s most celebrated poems, ‘I cannot live with You’ is a love poem – but it is far from a conventional one.
I cannot live with You –
It would be Life –
And Life is over there –
Behind the Shelf
The Sexton keeps the Key to –
Our Life – His Porcelain –
Like a Cup –
What is this enigmatic poem about? It opens by wrong-footing us – twice – in the first two lines. ‘I cannot live with You’: unusually for a love poem, the assertion is not ‘I cannot live without you’, but rather the opposite. Then, the reason: ‘It would be Life’. Not death, which is what we might expect, but the more positive ‘Life’.
Discarded of the Housewife –
Quaint – or Broke –
A newer Sevres pleases –
Old Ones crack –
Yet this ‘Life’, for Dickinson, is far from positive: it is confined and concealed, ‘Behind the Shelf’, as if a sexton (or church officer) had locked it away. It is like broken or outdated porcelain – an old cup, for instance – that is discarded or kept out of sight by a housewife who doesn’t want such unfashionable china on display.
Dickinson then states that, just as she cannot live with her lover, she could not die with him either:
I could not die – with You –
For One must wait
To shut the Other’s Gaze down –
You – could not –
And I – could I stand by
And see You – freeze –
Without my Right of Frost –
To paraphrase this, ‘I could not die with you, because to see your loved one die and have to close their dead eyes with your fingers would fill you with grief so overpowering that you’d want to join them in death – and you can’t, because “One must wait” for one’s own death, and go on living without the other person.
And as for myself, could I stand by and watch your body turn cold in death, without longing to attain my own “Right of Frost” and join you in cold death?’
Nor could I rise – with You –
Because Your Face
Would put out Jesus’ –
That New Grace
Glow plain – and foreign
On my homesick Eye –
Except that You than He
Shone closer by –
They’d judge Us – How –
For You – served Heaven – You know,
Or sought to –
I could not –
Because You saturated Sight –
And I had no more Eyes
For sordid excellence
And were You lost, I would be –
Though My Name
On the Heavenly fame –
From considering life and death, Dickinson then turns her analytical eye to resurrection, stating that she could not rise from the dead with her loved one, because his face is too beautiful and would obscure the face of Jesus. This would prevent Dickinson from seeing paradise, because her lover’s face would block it from view.
And were You – saved –
And I – condemned to be
Where You were not –
That self – were Hell to Me –
Similarly, she cannot conceive of hell, because hell for her simply means being without him. Just as their lives must be spent apart and their deaths must be solitary, so they seem destined to spend their time in the afterlife apart – at least this is the way Dickinson views it.
The poem ends with another little riddle or paradox:
So We must meet apart –
You there – I – here –
With just the Door ajar
That Oceans are – and Prayer –
And that White Sustenance –
‘Meet apart’? Just like two people in two separate rooms who can merely glimpse and hear each other through a door left ajar, or like two people who are oceans apart (but who can, for instance, ‘meet’ through corresponding if not by meeting in the flesh), Dickinson and her lover are destined to meet but only in such a way that reminds us of the distance between them.
Finally, Dickinson likens this sort of relationship to the one a religious person has with God: ‘Prayer’ is a way of ‘meeting’ God but also reminds the mortal worshipper that God is up there while they are down here on Earth.
And then, a last overturning of conventional thinking: ‘Despair’ is not painted black but instead is ‘White Sustenance’. This turns on its head the usual black-white attitude to hope and despair (‘great white hope’, ‘blackest despair’), making despair not only the white one but the thing which keeps us going or sustains us.
For after all, in hopeless love it is despair at the situation, rather than hope that it can be overcome, which tends to feed on us and which we, in turn, feed on. You’ll be hard-pushed to find a more succinct and sharp, yet also powerfully moving, description of hopeless love in all of nineteenth-century poetry.
‘I cannot live with You’ is at once a love poem and an anti-love poem, or rather a poem against the act of love. This is because it can also be analysed as, if not a religious poem, then a poem about religion, since it argues that mortal love distracts us from spiritual thoughts and religious observance.
This is evident in the early reference to the sexton, and then again in the lines about Jesus and paradise. The poem deftly weaves together familiar tropes from love poetry – the sentiments that ‘life without you would be hell’ and ‘my thoughts are consumed entirely by you’ – and, by melding them together with religious tropes, creates a new kind of love poem.
Discover more of Dickinson’s wonderful poetry with the glorious (and gloriously thick!) Complete Poems. You might also enjoy our analysis of her classic poem ‘My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun’ and her poem about madness, ‘I felt a Funeral, in my Brain’.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.