The Poem

“I cannot live with You—” (the title is not Emily Dickinson’s, since she did not title her poems) is a poem of fifty lines divided into eleven four-line stanzas and a concluding twelfth stanza of six lines. The poem is an unusually long poem for Dickinson. It is written in the first person from the point of view of a speaker addressing a lover.

Structurally, the poem is a list of things the speaker and her lover cannot do together and the reasons why they cannot. In the first three stanzas, the speaker announces to her beloved that she cannot “live” with the person because of the nature of “Life” itself. Life as it is ordinarily conceived of by those who deal with it daily on its most basic levels—the “Housewife” and the “Sexton” who locks up and unlocks (“keeps the Key to”) both earthly possessions and the graveyard—is something subject to decay: It can “crack” and be “Discarded.”

The speaker goes on to assert in the fourth and fifth stanzas that neither could she “die” with her beloved, because one of them would have to remain alive in order to close the other’s eyes (“For One must wait/ To shut the Other’s Gaze down”). The speaker asserts further that logically it would be impossible for her both to “see” the beloved die (“freeze”) and to be dead at the same time (to have her “Right of Frost”).

In the sixth and seventh stanzas, the speaker explains why she could not...

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Forms and Devices

One of the most important devices used in the poem is metaphor, a figure of speech in which one thing is seen in terms of something else. The speaker of the poem uses the language of love—specifically, that of the renunciation of love—as a way of both denouncing and renouncing the traditional paradigm for human life set forth by Christianity.

The poem is structured according to the stages of human life as defined by this traditional Christian paradigm: life, death, resurrection, judgment, damnation/salvation, eternity. Rather than overtly criticize the adequacy of this model for human life, however, the speaker considers the value and “Sustenance” afforded by this paradigm through an examination of its implications for a love relationship.

Within this larger metaphorical structure, the poem incorporates a parallel metaphor of sensory experiences that underscores the speaker’s rejection of both traditional definitions of “Life” and conventional modes of experiencing and perceiving “Life”; the speaker invokes images of eating, seeing, hearing, physical proximity, and again, at the end, eating. The first three stanzas employ images associated with eating in order to develop a metaphor for human life as it is traditionally viewed: “Life” is a piece of “Porcelain” or a “Cup” that contains the human spirit for a while until it cracks, breaks, or becomes outmoded (“Quaint”) and needs to be “Discarded.” The...

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