'I cannot live with you,' by Emily Dickinson

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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 broken;
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 keep apart,
You there, I here,
With just the door ajar
That oceans are,
And prayer,
And that pale svustenance,

Editor 1 Interpretation

"I cannot live with you" – A Masterpiece of Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson, one of the greatest poets of all times, has left behind a legacy of unparalleled poetry that continues to awe us even today. Her unique style and poetic vision have earned her a special place in the hearts of poetry enthusiasts around the world. One of her most well-known works is "I cannot live with you," a poem that has been the subject of much interpretation and literary analysis. In this article, we will explore this literary masterpiece and delve into its meaning.

The Poem in Its Entirety

Before we begin analyzing the poem, let us first read it in its entirety:

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—

Interpretation and Analysis

The poem begins with the speaker saying that she cannot live with the subject of the poem, who is presumably a lover or romantic interest. She says that life is elsewhere and that it is inaccessible to them. The metaphor of life being behind a shelf, inaccessible, is a powerful one. It suggests that the speaker and the subject are separated by something that they cannot overcome, much like a shelf that physically separates two objects on either side.

The next stanza continues the metaphor of life as an object that can be put away or discarded. The "Sexton" keeps the key to putting up their lives, as if it were a porcelain cup that can be set aside or forgotten. The line, "Discarded of the Housewife—/Quaint—or Broke—" creates an image of something that is no longer useful, either because it is old-fashioned or because it is damaged. This suggests that the speaker and the subject have reached a point in their relationship where they are no longer useful to each other.

The third stanza introduces the idea that the speaker cannot die with the subject. This is a powerful statement, as it suggests that their love is not strong enough to overcome death. The line, "For One must wait/To shut the Other's Gaze down—" creates an image of someone watching the other die, which is a painful and traumatic experience. The speaker cannot bear to witness this, suggesting that their love is not strong enough to withstand the ultimate test.

The fourth stanza continues the theme of death, with the speaker saying that she could not stand by and watch the subject freeze without her right to frost, or death's privilege. This suggests that the speaker wants to control the subject's death, to be the one to bring about the end. This is a powerful image, as it suggests that the speaker is not content to simply let things happen, but wants to be in control.

The fifth stanza introduces the idea that the speaker cannot rise with the subject because his face would put out Jesus'. This suggests that the speaker sees the subject as a threat to her faith, or perhaps as a rival to her devotion. The line, "That New Grace/Glow plain—and foreign/On my homesick Eye—" suggests that the speaker is homesick for something that she can no longer have. She is torn between her desire for the subject and her devotion to her faith.

The sixth stanza introduces the idea that the speaker and the subject would be judged if they were together. The subject is portrayed as someone who served heaven, while the speaker is someone who could not because she was too distracted by the subject's beauty. The line, "And were You lost, I would be—" suggests that the speaker sees the subject as an essential part of her life, without which she would be lost.

The seventh stanza introduces the idea that the speaker and the subject are separated by something that they cannot overcome. The speaker says that if the subject were saved and she were condemned to be where he was not, it would be like hell to her. This suggests that the speaker sees the subject as someone who is essential to her happiness, and without whom she would be miserable.

The final stanza suggests that the speaker and the subject are separated by an ocean, both physically and emotionally. The door is only ajar, suggesting that there is a possibility of reconciliation, but it is a small one. The reference to prayer suggests that the speaker is seeking guidance from a higher power, perhaps hoping that it will provide a solution to their problem.


"I cannot live with You" is a powerful and moving poem that explores the complexities of love and faith. The poem is full of powerful metaphors and images that create a vivid and emotional portrait of the speaker's struggle. It is a testament to Emily Dickinson's unique style and poetic vision, and is a masterpiece that continues to inspire and move readers around the world.

Editor 2 Analysis and Explanation

Emily Dickinson is one of the most celebrated poets in American literature, and her poem "I cannot live with you" is a classic example of her unique style and voice. This poem is a powerful exploration of love, loss, and the complexities of human relationships. In this analysis, we will explore the themes, structure, and language of this poem to gain a deeper understanding of its meaning and significance.

The poem begins with the speaker declaring that she cannot live with her lover. This statement sets the tone for the rest of the poem, which is filled with a sense of longing and despair. The speaker goes on to explain that while she loves her partner deeply, she cannot be with them because their love is too intense and overwhelming. She describes their love as a "loaded gun" that could destroy them both if they were to stay together.

This theme of intense, destructive love is a common one in Dickinson's poetry. She often explores the darker side of love, depicting it as a force that can consume and destroy those who are caught in its grip. In "I cannot live with you," the speaker is acutely aware of the dangers of this kind of love, and she is unwilling to risk her own well-being for the sake of her relationship.

The structure of the poem is also significant. It is written in four stanzas, each with four lines. The rhyme scheme is ABCB, which gives the poem a sense of balance and symmetry. This structure is typical of Dickinson's poetry, which often features short, tightly structured stanzas. The brevity of the stanzas also adds to the sense of urgency and intensity in the poem.

The language of the poem is simple yet powerful. Dickinson uses vivid imagery to convey the speaker's emotions and the intensity of her love. For example, she describes her lover's eyes as "inns on the road to nothing," suggesting that their love is a journey without a destination. She also uses the metaphor of a loaded gun to describe the danger of their love, saying that it is "safer in the tomb."

The poem is also notable for its use of repetition. The phrase "I cannot live with you" is repeated throughout the poem, emphasizing the speaker's sense of desperation and the impossibility of their situation. This repetition also creates a sense of rhythm and musicality in the poem, adding to its emotional impact.

One of the most interesting aspects of the poem is the ambiguity of the speaker's gender. While it is often assumed that the speaker is female, there is nothing in the text to confirm this. This ambiguity is typical of Dickinson's poetry, which often blurs the boundaries between gender and identity. It also adds to the universal appeal of the poem, as it can be read as a statement about love and relationships regardless of the gender of the speaker.

In conclusion, "I cannot live with you" is a powerful and moving poem that explores the complexities of love and relationships. Through its vivid imagery, repetition, and simple yet powerful language, Dickinson creates a sense of urgency and intensity that captures the reader's attention from the first line. The poem is a testament to Dickinson's skill as a poet and her ability to capture the complexities of the human experience in just a few short lines.

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