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.
The poem is organized by the various lives they can't share:
live together in this world; they can't die together; 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.
This poem has an alternate reading: she rejects him to
Life in this world: stanzas 1-3
Why can't they live together? Because it would be "life," but
is confined or restricted. She uses the metaphor of life as porcelain
by the sexton (sexton: a church official whose duties include
maintaining church property, digging graves, ringing the church bells).
She refers to being together in this world as "our life," a
locked up, not free, without passion or expression.
The reference to the
sexton combined with the religious references in the rest of the poem
signify the restrictiveness and narrowness of conventional religion,
which "kill." The cup reference can be read as a reference to communion
and would have been a familiar association for Dickinson and her
community. However you read this metaphor specifically, its general
meaning is clear enough. The cup metaphor is expanded from the sexton
to the housewife, who prefers Sevres (Sevres: fine porcelain
in the French town of Sevres). This extension to the housewife suggests
that the conditions and values of society are hostile to a passion like
There is another way to read the opening two lines. She may be
her love for her art, i.e., writing poetry. When she says,"It would be
she may mean, "Living together would be real life, but it would not be
art." Dickinson wrote a number of poems about poetry, and the topic of
poetry runs through her letters.
Dying together: stanzas 4-5
They can't die together because she has to perform the last
act which the
living perform 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. She regards death as her "right" and a
thereby making death a desirable state. Nevertheless, because death
would separate them, their dying together is impossible.
Resurrection together: stanzas 6-7
The Grace referred to can be seen as Jesus's promise that the
their graves to life everlasting. Her total absorption in her beloved,
his importance for her, would relegate Jesus to secondary status: her
face would outshine Jesus's. In addition, she would be homesick unless
her beloved were near
her. So resurrection together is impossible.
Final Judgment together: stanzas 8-11
As is appropriate to the topic of eternity, this grouping of
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
see only him (that is, she cares only for or is completely absorbed in
consequently, she does not care for the glories of Paradise. It is
surprising, even shocking, that she describes Paradise as "sordid." Sordid,
today, generally means dirty or depressingly wretched; an
older meaning is having an inferior nature. You must decide which
meaning fits your interpretation of this poem. Paradise is sordid in
comparison to the joys of her relationship with her beloved. She will
not accept heaven without him, and she regards any separation from him
Living apart: stanza 12
The only possibility left is to live apart, a partially open
allowing their only contact. "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
in their love is despair.
If you adopt the reading that she is rejecting love for her
this stanza reads a little differently. Though they do not meet
physically, they will meet in her poetry. She will write poetry
("here"), and he will read her poetry ("there"). The poet needs
or apartness to write poetry.
The last stanza is seven lines, almost twice as long as any of
other stanzas. This length emphasizes the idea of the stanza, their
separation; also it gives the impression of a long or stretched out
for her loneliness and aloneness.
"I cannot live with you" is another poem of not-having, a form
exclusion often takes in Dickinson's poetry. Notice as you read her
poems how often the speaker or another figure is excluded or cut off
the joys and successes of life. Such poems Dickinson have contributed
to her being seen as the poet of exclusion.
|Dickinson, Online overview
"For each ecstatic instant," p. 2
"I taste a liquor never brewed,"
"Safe in their alabaster chambers,"
"I heard a fly buzz when I died," p.
"It was not death, for I stood up,"
| "A bird came down the walk,"
"I like to see it lap the miles,"
"Pain has an element of blank," p.
"A narrow fellow in the grass," p.
"I'm nobody! Who are you?" p. 9
| "After great pain a formal
feeling comes" (handout)
"The soul selects her own society"
"The heart asks pleasure first,"
"I'll tell you how the sun rose,"
"Presentiment is that long shadow on
the lawn," p. 36
| "Success is counted sweetest"
"I cannot live with you," p. 29
"He fumbles at your spirit," p.
"I felt a cleaving in my mind,"
"My life closed twice before its
close," p. 49
| "Wild nights! Wild nights!"
"She sweeps with many-colored brooms,"
"Hope is the thing with feathers,"
"I felt a funeral in my brain,"
"I had been hungry all the years,"
|"I started Early--took my Dog--"
"My life had stood a loaded gun"
"Because I could not stop for Death,"
"If you were coming in the fall,"
Sample Midtern and Student
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