I CAN NOT LIVE WITH YOU BY EMILY DICKINSON
“I cannot live with You” is Dickinson’s longest mature lyric, addressed to a recognizably human, hopelessly loved other, and employing the structure and rhetoric of a persuasive argument. The poem is addressed to her woman friend, Kate Scott Turner.
“I Cannot Live With You” was published in 1890. 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 who is capable of anything and is to move onto Heaven once it’s the right time. This poem has been praised as her best love poem and may well be her most famous love poem. In this heavily ironic poem, the final expression and measure of the intensity of her love is her despair at the lovers having to remain apart.
This poem’s coherence results from opposition to tensions that arise from Dickinson’s dual understanding of life. To live with the beloved is impossible, for “it would be” 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 never ware. In this poem Emily Dickinson comments upon the wreckage of her love, her bliss, her life.
She does it slowly, measuredly, with great deliberation. She uses the best words and delivers them with blows of the sledge. The poem is organized by the various lives they can’t share: they can’t live together in this world; they can’t die together; And they can’t rise after death together; they can’t be judged by God together, whether destined for heaven or not. All they can do is maintain the possibility of communication (the partially open door), though “oceans” apart. Prayer or God offers no comfort or hope; all they have is the “pale sustenance” (not a nourishing food), which is despair.
I. Poet’s personal experiences are reflected in this poem but at same time Dickinson is observing it in a completely objective manner. Speaker presents different arguments in the poem in all the five sections. She talks about her impossible relationship with her so-called lover.
II. The four impossibilities areIn section one speaker argues that it is impossible for her to live with her lover and she provides reasons for this. First she says her life with her lover would be the end of her creativity as an artist. That’s why she calls it confined life and uses the image of “life behind the shelf” she thinks so because she wants to protect her individual freedom.
III. Next image signifies religious control over a lover’s life. She uses the metaphor of life as porcelain locked up by the sexton (sexton: a church official whose duties include maintaining church property.
IV. The ‘sexton’ is the speaker’s lover. He is a church related officer and hence, he has to follow the church’s discipline the speaker fears that their life would become the church property. She is not religious so she thinks the church cannot control her personal life. Because of this she finds her life problematic with her lover. She calls it a life locked up, not free, without passion or expression.
V. Then she compares their life with crockery sets which are old-fashioned and cracked. Her lover is a religious person who has to follow a certain code of conduct which is not important in the speaker’s view. She feels if both of them live together finally their relationship will crack and break into pieces. The problem of adjustment is troubling her because as we discussed earlier she wants to maintain her ‘self as an artist it is necessary for her to take care of her individualism.
VI. Next impossibility is dying together. They can’t die together because she has to perform the last act which the living performs 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.
VII. She regards death as her “right” and a “privilege,” thereby making death
a desirable state. Nevertheless, because death could separate them, their dying together is impossible. The next impossible thing is resurrecting together.
VIII. 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.
IX. In the fourth section there is an impossibility of facing the final judgment day together. 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.
X. It is surprising, even shocking, that she describes Paradise as sordid in comparison to the joys of her relationship with her beloved. The pairing of “sordid excellence” is both a metaphysical touch, and a characteristic Dickinson moment of transforming an abstraction into its opposite with an oddly chosen adjective. She will not accept heaven without him, and she regards any separation from him as itself “hell.”
XI. In the final section the only possibility left is to live apart, a partially open door allowing their only contact. This stanza is notably the first time she uses the word “we,” capitalized for emphasis, and creates a paradox where “meet apart” seems possible, or at least more possible than any of the other alternatives she has rejected throughout the poem. She claims that the door is just “ajar” but then compares it to oceans, making “ajar” as wide open as the earth itself, and then linking it to prayer, or hope.
XII. In this amazingly deft bit of wordplay, Dickinson reverses everything as she’s saying it—the lovers are apart but meeting; the door is ajar, like an ocean; and the speaker is somehow sustained by despair. “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.
To live with you would be a true life of love, but such a life has been locked away out of sight by the Sexton as though it were ‘His Porcelain’ (the church, represented by the sexton, regards the true life of love as only happening between married persons). Our adulterous liaison would be regarded by the church as a broken thing, just like a housewife regards a broken cup as something to be thrown away and be replaced by quality Sevres china.
I could not die at the same time as you, as one of us must wait to close the other’s eyes. At the same time such waiting would be hard. You could not do it, and I would find it impossible to look upon you dead and not be dead myself. But we have to steel ourselves to do it, because we cannot rise together either.
If we did that, your face wou i outshine the face of Jesus, and his Grace would just ‘glow plain _ and foreign’ unless you ‘shone closer by. Also, we would probably be separated at the Last Judgment, for you tried to ‘serve Heaven’ (do the right thing and not commit adultery), whereas you so saturated my sight ti nt I had no more eyes for such a sordid excellence as Paradise (I didn’t care whether I did the right thing or not).
If you were judged a lost soul, I too would feel lost, even though I had been judged the best in Heaven. And if you were saved for Heaven, and I condemned to Hell, just being separated from you would be a Hell in itself. So we can only meet apart in our minds, and the Door ajar between us now is not just the door of my room but is Oceans, Prayer, Despair.
Life : bliss; Sexton keeps the key : groundskeeper of church buildings and caretaker of graveyards; porcelain : delicate; quaint : old; sevres : high quality French porcelain; die : climax and collapse for orgasm and resulting in exhaustion; for one…gaze down : she knows that she cannot die with him, as one must be there to literally close the other’s eyes for final rest; and see you…death’s privilege?: the cold or frost is a metaphor for death here.
N. B. Dickinson sees death as a privilege granted to her, almost desired; see : symbol of climax; freeze, frost : frigidity experienced by ejaculation; privilege : favor of being put into possession of other’s love-making; nor could I rise : it is a reference to the Second Coming, or the Rapture, in which those deemed worthy by Jesus Christ are lifted into Heaven as apocalypse erupts on Earth; grace : the fountain of love; glow : the feeling of arousal;
he shone : Jesus came; heaven : pleasurable sensorial experience; for you..know : her lover or loved one served God, so he may be saved as well; sight : rise of clamor; paradise : place where pleasure is at its maximum; lost: a woman’s frustration of her orgasmic desire; name : synonym for symbol; heavenly fame : the optimum satisfaction; door: symbolising body; prayer: the supreme moment for the female in intercourse; white sustenance : positive approach; despair : moistness.
Poet’s personal experiences are reflected in this poem but at same time Dickinson is observing it in a completely objective manner. Speaker presents different arguments in the poem in all the five sections. She talks about her impossible relationship with her so-called lover. So the poem is titled as to how and why the speaker cannot live with her beloved.
Outside of her poems, some of Emily Dickinson’s most famous words are “I am one of the lingering bad ones” (The Dickinson Properties). She penned these words to a friend in her account of the faith of everyone around her. Emily lived in a place and time in which the culture was embracing Christianity, and Emily Dickinson expressed on multiple occasions that she wished she could buy into the message like so many people around her were doing. She continued to claim, however, that she could not.
This feeling of her own inability to accept the message she wished to accept comes through in many of her poems including Because I Could Not Stop For Death, Departed to the Judgement and I Heard A Fly Buzz – When I Died as well as many others. This belief comes through strongly in I Cannot Live With You in which the speaker refuses a marriage offer. She addresses her lover in this poem, offering every possible outcome of a union between the two of them, and claiming that all would end in despair.
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