Emily Dickinson: "I cannot live with You" (Poem 640)

Emily Dickinson's poem, introduced by Steven Cramer and read aloud by poets Lucie Brock-Broido, Steven Cramer, and Mary Jo Salter

(April 14, 1999)

Emily Dickinson 1848
Daguerreotype of Emily Dickinson (1848)

What we don't know about Emily Dickinson fills many books. The identity of the man she called "Master" in her poems and her letters; the nature of the "terror" that she "could tell to none," which informs many of her major lyrics; whether carnal knowledge lay behind her intensely erotic imagination—these and other mysteries have produced a small library of speculation. And as for the poems themselves, critics endlessly debate Dickinson's images, tones, intentions, and sources.

There's another mystery, which has to do with the poems as scripts for performance. Anyone who has read Dickinson with care knows how her insistent rhythms, pauses, and gaps or splices of thought create an unmistakable "voice" that infiltrates and colonizes the mind of the silent reader. Similarly, anyone who has heard, say, Aaron Copland's song cycle based on twelve Dickinson poems knows how beautifully her work can be set and sung. But how should her poems be said? She carefully preserved her work, so we can assume she intended it to be read—but did she intend it to be read out loud? Given all of her infamous ambiguities—eccentric punctuation, indeterminate parts of speech, phrases that "float" syntactically—to decide how we say a Dickinson poem is, to a large extent, to decide what it means.

"I cannot live with You" (poem 640 in Thomas Johnson's edition of the Complete Poems) is Dickinson's longest mature lyric, addressed to a recognizably human, hopelessly loved other, and employing the structure and rhetoric of a persuasive argument. Here it is.

Audio: Hear these poets read "I cannot live with You"

Lucie Brock-Broido (2:45)

Steven Cramer (2:05)

Mary Jo Salter (1:49)

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

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

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

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 —
  Death's privilege?

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
  As Paradise

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

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

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

Although it is one of Dickinson's more "spoken" poems, "I cannot live with You" still confronts the performer with a number of characteristic challenges. Consider the first sentence—or rather, what the poem's first sentence may or may not entail. Arguably, it encompasses the entirety of the first three stanzas. Punctuated conventionally, with elided logical connectives interpolated, its prose sense might read as follows: "I cannot live with you [because] it would be life, and life is over there, behind the shelf the sexton keeps the key to, putting up our life, [which is] his porcelain, like a cup discarded of the housewife—quaint or broke—a newer Sevres pleases, [after] old ones crack." Those very elisions are, of course, crucial to the poem's stark authority of tone, but they also create a sentence very difficult to parse, to understand, and thus to speak aloud with confidence. My paraphrase places "His Porcelain" in apposition to "Our Life," but it could represent the start of a participial phrase introducing a new detail ("his porcelain like a cup"). Notice also how "Quaint — or Broke" interrupts what we may take as a noun clause ("the housewife ... a newer Sevres pleases"), and thus wryly modifies both wife and cup—the former by proximity, the latter by common sense. Yet an equally plausible reading supplies a full stop after "broke," understands "pleases" as an intransitive verb, and regards "a newer Sevres pleases" as a remark on the general aesthetic pleasure afforded by a new set of French porcelain.

In stanza seven, the reader must negotiate the complicated syntax of "Except that You than He/ Shone closer by"—a weird inversion even by nineteenth-century standards of poetic license. A final challenge waits in the eighth stanza, when the speaker asserts that "They'd judge Us," then interjects the qualification "How." The odd placement of this word offers three alternate senses—and hence three alternate ways of saying it—if attached grammatically to "They'd judge Us," "For You," or even "You know." This last possibility is my current choice. When the sentence is unscrambled, it yields: "you know how they'd judge us, for you served heaven." On the other hand, one might treat it as a freestanding rhetorical question, posed by the speaker in response to her own assertion, then answered by the rest of the stanza. This is the choice Dickinson's first editors made in their revised, heavily repunctuated, and ultimately repudiated 1890 edition of Dickinson's poems. They also changed "broke" to "broken," "white sustenance" to "pale sustenance," and titled the poem "In Vain."

There are other elements that contribute to the poem's rich uncertainties: elaborately extended metaphors, shifts in tense and mood, riddling paradoxes (How can "Life" cause an incapacity to live? What might it mean to "meet apart"?), and abrupt reversals of scale ("the Door ajar/ That Oceans are"). And yet, even if we can't solve every linguistic conundrum, let alone satisfy ourselves with a uniform way of saying it, "I cannot live with You" remains one of Dickinson's most powerfully direct expressions of longing and loss.

A three-part argument against erotic union (I cannot live with you, die with you, or share the Resurrection with you, as either one of the damned or the saved), the poem ever more forcefully registers the desire for fulfillment each time it asserts the inevitability of disappointment. Indeed, there's something blasphemous about a love so total it outshines divinity, equates "prayer" with "despair" (the poem's most telling rhyme), and finally associates the latter with, of all things, the bread of the Eucharist. Dickinson doesn't take the conventional path of renouncing earthly love in favor of a more compelling, divine love; she refuses it because it is the more powerful of the two.

In the course of her argument Dickinson offers remarkably detailed character portraits of both the speaker and the beloved. It's been suggested that the line "For You — served Heaven — You know" reveals the beloved's identity as the Reverend Charles Wadsworth (also a prime candidate for "Master"). More intriguing is the sort of man depicted in the poem: ambivalent or incompetent in his faith ("You served Heaven ... Or sought to"); charismatic, handsome ("Your Face/ Would put out Jesus' —"), and rather squeamish—or simply impatient?—when it comes to performing a final gesture of love ("For One must wait/ To shut the Other's Gaze down —/ You — could not —").

Tensions between the speaker's competing allegiances register forcefully. No orthodox believer herself, she recognizes both the allure and strictures of the Church, honoring yet manipulating some of its central emblems to make her case. She is also audacious enough to imagine a death pact with her lover whereby she claims the "Right of Frost" as her "privilege." Unapologetically passionate, she imagines her sight "saturated" by her lover's presence, rendering any other excellence—even the Christian Paradise—degraded in comparison. And in a glorious rendition of love's twin poles of self-sacrifice and greed, stanzas ten and eleven make plain that while she'd be lost in Heaven if he were damned, she'll be damned if she'll surrender him to salvation.

The final stanza seems to me one of the most overwhelmingly pained and resigned protests in verse. For Dickinson—the recluse who, paradoxically, valued personal attachments more highly than almost any other life experience—separation from a loved one amounts to Hell. The last six lines forsake the symmetry of the previous eleven quatrains, and desolation inheres in each syllable and juncture: in the choked finality of the heavy stresses and strong caesuras ("You there — I — here"); in the emotional abyss that opens with an enjambment ("With just the Door ajar/ That Oceans are"); in the oxymoronic precision of "meet apart" and "White Sustenance —/ Despair." In this stanza and in hundreds of others, Dickinson resembles Shakespeare, one of the few other poets in English to achieve such a level of volcanic energy. To my mind and ear, no other American poet comes close.

Copyright © 1999 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
Poem #640 ("I cannot live with You"), by Emily Dickinson, from
The Poems of Emily Dickinson, Thomas H. Johnson, ed., Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Copyright © 1951, 1955, 1979, 1983 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved. Used by permission of the publishers and the Trustees of Amherst College.