In Vain                    

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 sustenance,

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: they can't 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 write poetry.

Life in this world: stanzas 1-3

Why can't they live together? Because it would be "life," but life which is confined or restricted. She uses the metaphor of life as porcelain locked up 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 life locked up, not free, without passion or expression.

The reference to the sexton combined with the religious references in the rest of the poem may 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 made 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 theirs.

There is another way to read the opening two lines. She may be rejecting her love for her art, i.e., writing poetry. When she says,"It would be life," 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 "privilege," 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 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.

Final Judgment together: stanzas 8-11

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. 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 as itself "hell."

Living apart: stanza 12

The only possibility left is to live apart, a partially open door 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 them in their love is despair.

If you adopt the reading that she is rejecting love for her art, then 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 solitude or apartness to write poetry.

The last stanza is seven lines, almost twice as long as any of the other stanzas. This length emphasizes the idea of the stanza, their separation; also it gives the impression of a long or stretched out time for her loneliness and aloneness.

"I cannot live with you" is another poem of not-having, a form that 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 from 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," p. 2
"Safe in their alabaster chambers," p. 3
"I heard a fly buzz when I died," p. 21
"It was not death, for I stood up," p. 22
"A bird came down the walk," p. 13
"I like to see it lap the miles," p. 27
"Pain has an element of blank," p. 31
"A narrow fellow in the grass," p. 44
"I'm nobody! Who are you?" p. 9
"After great pain a formal feeling comes" (handout)
"The soul selects her own society" (handout)
"The heart asks pleasure first," p. 24
"I'll tell you how the sun rose," p. 11
"Presentiment is that long shadow on the lawn," p. 36
"Success is counted sweetest" (handout)
"I cannot live with you," p. 29
"He fumbles at your spirit," p. 11
"I felt a cleaving in my mind," p. 43
"My life closed twice before its close," p. 49
"Wild nights! Wild nights!" p.5
"She sweeps with many-colored brooms," p. 3
"Hope is the thing with feathers," p. 5
"I felt a funeral in my brain," p. 8
"I had been hungry all the years," p. 26
"I started Early--took my Dog--" (handout)
"My life had stood a loaded gun" (handout)
"Because I could not stop for Death," p. 35
"If you were coming in the fall," p. 23
**Supplemental Reading**
      Sample Midtern and Student Answers

Core Studies 6 Page || Melani Home Page