“Pale sustenance”

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 –
Despair –

~Emily Dickinson

The only way this poem could be more Emily Dickinson would be if it had a bird and some flowers in it. Otherwise, it seems to hit all of what I am coming to think of as the Dickinson notes: pathos, unanswered questions, metaphors galore, paradox, passion depicted in terms of cold rather than heat, and a healthy helping of blasphemy.

This poem devastates from the first line–“I cannot live with you”–and then piles on the sorrow. Life is behind a locked shelf, but “our” life, her life, is locked in that shelf. Despite being locked in, it is old, weak, unpleasing. The beloved could not wait for her, and the speaker could not rise with the beloved–this just gets more and more tragic, in that quiet, Dickinsonian way.

This brings us to the really fun part. The reason the speaker cannot rise with the beloved is that, to her, Jesus would pale in comparison. The beloved served heaven–or tried to, she qualifies–but she could not. She even suggests that she would cast off heaven to follow him into hell. She takes this a step further to say that she would become hell to herself if not near him after death.

Then comes the paradox–“So we must meet apart”–with only a door ajar between them, a space wide as oceans. After all the blaspheming, she then suggests that prayer connects them, and finally ends, in peak Emily style, on the word “despair.”

It’s a gut-wrenching poem, but also meticulously executed. There’s much to examine here, and I’ve only touched on a few of the points that fascinate me. Of the poems we’ve read so far this year, this one strikes me as perhaps the most emblematic of Dickinson’s brave and passionate style. What do you think?

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