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I cannot live with you by Emily Dickinson Analysis

About the poet –

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was an American poet. She has been regarded as one of the most important figures in American poetry. Dickinson lived much of her life in isolation. While Dickinson was a prolific writer, her only publications during her lifetime were 10 of her nearly 1,800 poems, and one letter. The poems published then were usually edited significantly to fit conventional poetic rules. Her poems were unique for her era. They contain short lines, typically lack titles, use unconventional capitalization and punctuation.

Read the Poem


“I cannot live with You —
It would be Life —
And Life is over there —
Behind the Shelf”

This poem was written for a person that had offered a love proposal to the poet. In an answer to the proposal, the poet had written this poem. The first line begins with the same words as the title. Here the poet tells the person that she cannot live with him. She says that living with him would be ‘a life’. However, she later explains the reason behind her refusal of the proposal. She says that such a life would be confined and restricted just like staying ‘behind the shelves’. It would be a dull, monotonous life.

The Sexton keeps the Key to —
Putting up
Our Life — His Porcelain —
Like a Cup —

The Sexton is a church official whose work is to look after the churchyard. He is also referred to a gravedigger. In those days, people were often buried alive. The safety coffins had a bell inside them. So if someone wakes up suddenly, they could ring the bell, and the Sexton would dig them up and save them. Here, the poetess uses this reference to relate to her own life. The Sexton is used here to refer someone who has complete control of the poet’s life. The poet believes her to be completely dead from inside. The speaker feels as if she has no control over her life. Someone might come and take the control, just like a Sexton is in control of the life of the person buried. The significance of ‘Porcelain Cup’ refers to a showpiece that looks beautiful from the outside but is hollow from the inside just like the cup. The poet relates this to her life that would be if she agrees to marry that person.

Discarded of the Housewife —
Quaint — or Broke —
A newer Sevres pleases —
Old Ones crack —

In the third stanza, the poet gives another point of reasoning to support her decision. She continues to explain her earlier words about Porcelain cups. The Porcelain or decorative cups are discarded by the housewives when they are broken. Now, she gives the control of her life from a Sexton to a housewife. The poet feels as if she is also discarded as if she is broken or outdated. She imagines herself being replaced by newer Porcelain cups, as old ones have developed cracks. She believes that she could not accept the proposal because one day she might as well be replaced just like the Porcelain cups.

The poetess feels lost in her life. She feels as if she is being controlled by external forces like the sexton or the housewife in this poem. This poem symbolizes a refusal to live with the lover. That lover might offer to give the poet a life of her own. However, she refuses such an offer, because she believes that the life isn’t accessible to her. She would ultimately be used and discarded.

I could not die — with You —
For One must wait
To shut the Other’s Gaze down —
You — could not —

Till this point, the poet had been refusing to live with her lover. But now she refuses to die with that person. This means that someone has offered her to spend her entire life with him, which she declines. She offers a reason for her refusal as well. She says that one person must not die until the other person has died, so that one can shut the eyes of the dead. The poet’s idea of love is quite peculiar. She solely refuses the proposal of this person in a fear of being discarded. Even if she would not be discarded, one of the lovers would have to watch the other die, which would be a painful scene. Thus, the poet would ignore love altogether rather than face the loss of her lover.

And I — Could I stand by
And see You — freeze —
Without my Right of Frost —
Death’s privilege?

Here, the poet reveals her pain of watching her lover die. She says that she couldn’t just stand there and watch her lover die. If she would ever had to face such a tragedy, she would rather choose herself to be in the lover’s place of death. Yet, she knows that life doesn’t work that way.

Nor could I rise — with You —
Because Your Face
Would put out Jesus’ —
That New Grace

Now, the poem takes another shocking turn. After refusing to love, and die with her lover, the poet now refuses to ‘rise’ with him. The word ‘rise’ here refers to resurrection after death. During that era, people believed that those who are followers of Jesus, would resurrect from the dead just like Him. The poet claims that she doesn’t wish to be resurrected with her lover because the face of that person would even outshine Jesus’s face. The poet knows that Jesus’s face shines the brightest among all. But she says that if the lover resurrected, his face would even leave Jesus behind. The poet believes that this would be wrong, and thus makes it as one of her decisions to marry that person.

Glow plain — and foreign
On my homesick Eye —
Except that You than He
Shone closer by —

Here, the poet says that the face of her lover would even make Jesus’s face seem plain and dull. This doesn’t seem to be the right idea to the poet. The word ‘homesick eye’ means that rather than searching for ‘New Heaven’ and ‘New Earth’ as the Christians are taught, this poet would miss living in her Old Earth. The capitalization of the word ‘You’ signifies that the poet compares the lover with God Himself. Here He refers to Jesus and You refers to the lover. The poet believes these feelings are wrong, and hence refuses the idea of marriage.

They’d judge Us — How —
For You — served Heaven — You know,
Or sought to —
I could not —

Here, it is confusing, who ‘they’ refers to. This might be a reference to the people present during the Final Resurrection. It might also mean the family, friends of the present time. The lover is a person who follows the Gods and serves to him. However, the poet has no desire to serve in Heaven. Therefore, their relationship would be judged by the people, and hence it is one of the reasons behind her refusal.

Because You saturated Sight —
And I had no more Eyes
For sordid excellence
As Paradise

The poet continues to give reasons for her refusal. Her lover had saturated her sight, which implies that she no more wants to look at a higher world, or the Paradise. A Christian is always taught to look at the Heaven. However, by stating that she has no desire to look at the Heaven, the poet refers to her absence of faith in religion. Therefore, both their hearts are the opposite and hence they cannot marry.

And were You lost, I would be —
Though My Name
Rang loudest
On the Heavenly fame —

The poet continues in giving arguments supporting her decision of not to marry. Now she says that if the lover of the poet ever gets lost, she would be lost with him too. She feels incomplete without him. If she finds a position in Heaven, and her lover is lost, she would not find peace even in the Heaven alone.

And were You — saved —
And I — condemned to be
Where You were not —
That self — were Hell to Me —

This stanza also highlights the pain of separation of the two lovers. This stanza is the contrast to the earlier stanza where she talked about her getting a seat in the Heaven. Now she says that if her lover is saved instead of her, and he gets a seat in the Heaven, while she gets into somewhere else, she would still be broken hearted. The pain of separation just makes her vulnerable. She feels that she would be completely lost without her lover. A place without her lover with her would be ‘Hell’ for her.

So We must meet apart —
You there — I — here —
With just the Door ajar
That Oceans are — and Prayer —
And that White Sustenance —
Despair –

In the last stanza of the poem, the poet concludes that the two lovers must not come together in order to avoid all the torments they would suffer. It would be their best decision to stay apart from each other. They must remain apart with the Door ajar. She explains that oceans and prayers are trying to create a door between their love. His prayers and faith in religion is something the poet could never relate, and hence it would create separation just like the oceans. These things bring her heart a feeling that she calls the ‘White Sustenance’ which is the feeling of despair. Because the two lovers can never unite, it makes her heart gloomy.

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