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Poem #640: Interpretation

Oct 08, 1999 1113 Words
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—

"I cannot live with You", by Emily Dickinson, is an emotional poem in which she shares her experiences and thoughts on death and love. Some critics believe that she has written about her struggle with death and her desire to have a relationship with a man whose vocation was ministerial, Reverend Charles Wadsworth. She considers suicide as an option for relieving the pain she endures, but decides against it. The narrator, more than likely Emily herself, realizes that death will leave her even further away from the one that she loves. There is a possibility that they will never be together again.

"Arguing with herself, Dickinson considers three major resolutions for the frustrations she is seeking to define and to resolve. Each of these resolutions is expressed in negative form: living wither her lover, dying with him, and discovering a world beyond nature. Building on this series of negations, Dickinson advances a catalogue of reasons for her covenant with despair, which are both final and insufficient. Throughout, she excoriates the social and religious authorities that impede her union, but she remains emotionally unconvinced that she has correctly identified her antagonists." (Pollack, 182)

Dickinson begins her poem by saying that she cannot live with her lover because their life together is an object that can only be opened with a key. The Sexton, or church officer in charge of the maintenance of church property, keeps the key. The reverend's involvement with God and with a woman at the same time is like a porcelain cup that is easily broken. This is an example of Personification. Life is personified as this old cup which is valuable until a new, better one is available.

Sensory images are used to develop an interest for the reader and a way of showing what the author felt. An example is in the fifth stanza, "And see You—freeze—Without my Right of Frost". The sense of touch is used when she says that one who is dead is frozen. It tells the reader that the author knows that death isn't a pleasant experience. The narrator exclaims that she cannot die with her lover either. It is possible that she doesn't want to see him suffer in the "frost", or maybe she wants him to shut her eyes when she has passed and mourn for her. She says that death's privilege is not having to witness someone you love die since you are already in the afterlife.

It is ironic that she falls in love with someone whose faith is so strong when she herself changes her mind frequently about her beliefs. His piety contrasts with her disbelief. However, She contradicts her usual disbelief in God by saying that she could not rise with her lover if he will be punished by Jesus for his actions. She tends to believe in the promise of Christian salvation. The narrator mentions that this man is now her paradise and what she saw previously only sordid excellence. She doesn't want to give up on the relationship and fears that because he serves heaven that she might be condemned and he saved. She could be saved and he condemned. Either way it would be hell to her if they were apart.

At the conclusion, she compares their separation to a door. It is slightly open, enough that there is a possibility they can overcome their differences. The two lovers are such opposites that they "meet apart…With just the Door ajar". Then, she says that they are separated by the Oceans. Again, there is a possibility that they can be together if they cross the water barrier. Their only hope is through prayer that they will someday meet again in Heaven.

An end rhyme is used in some stanzas to make the rhythm flow more smoothly. An example is in the first stanza with the second and fourth lines. Life and Shelf rhyme because they end in the same sound. Up and Cup rhyme in the second stanza, Broke and Crack in the third, Face and Grace in the sixth, Eye and by in the seventh, Eyes and Paradise in the ninth, Name and fame in the tenth, be and Me in the eleventh, apart and ajar in the last, and here, Prayer, and Despair in the last.

Dickinson repeats the phrase or idea of "I cannot…with You" or "I could not…with You". Each time she uses the statement, it is the beginning of a major resolution. One instance of alliteration used is in the ninth stanza with the words "saturated Sight" and a constant "s" sound. Assonance is also apparent in the eighth stanza with "How" and "know" because it is a partial rhyme made by vowel sounds.

Each stanza contains four lines except for the last one which has six. This is because it is the conclusion of her thoughts where she states that she will live in despair and depression. The stanza form did not help to develop the meaning. To correctly read and comprehend the poem, one must read it straight through without pauses, ignoring the numerous dashes.

In conclusion, the mood of the poem is one of hopelessness, desperation, and discouragement. Emily Dickinson is in a state of depression, and is probably at the beginning of her mental breakdown stage. It took her many years to overcome the emptiness she felt without her lover.

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