Date of writing: 1979
Comment and analysis:
In this poem Emily Dickinson comments upon the wreckage of her love, her bliss, her life. She does it slowly, measuredly, with great deliberation. She uses best words and delivers them with blows of the sledge.
The poem is addressed to her woman friend, Kate Scott Turner. They are both lesbians. It does not follow necessarily that Kate ever came to see the poem.
The analysis has been difficult, requiring twenty years to bring it to its present stage. There are still a few rubs left in the interpretation. The poem is divided into its seven logical sections. Three words differ with the Variorum Edition: 10. broken instead of broke; 45. keep instead of meet; 49. pale instead of white. Of these three alterations only that of “meet” is truly consequential: “meet” is a symbol for confrontation with sexual intercourse and the female’s making herself ready for it, in this case in the heterosexual meaning.
I cannot live with you
I cannot have intercourse with you, more precisely: I cannot have orgasm with you.
It would be life
it would be bliss
And life is over there
behind the shelf
the sexton keeps the key to
1. “shelf” has a Webster hum in its meanings;
2. “deck of ships” or glans;
3. “skin to something” the outer surface of the contraceptive;
4. “pinnacle, crag, ledge” = glans
5. “rack”, “stack” = contraceptive (where the
semen will be stacked);
6 “where books are being kept” (not used in this sense in this poem – it has a lesbian meaning for clitoris region);
7. " a sandbank in a river" = semen on glans;
8. a “rock or ledge of rock” = glans or glans corona
9. “reefs or shoals” = the glans corona and its semen sandbanks" on which vaginal cup may get stranded in the attempt to gain the mutual climax
10. “women on the shelf” = women without matrimonial prospects, women in storage (as mistresses)
It are thus the 3. and the 10. meanings which apply here: the contraceptive: it is most indispensable for consorting with mistresses, concubines.
“sexton” is a penis symbol, he is the sweeper of the aisles and the ringer of the bell in the steeple. He “keeps the key to the shelf” because the contraceptive (shelf) can be entered only from the penis side.
our life his porcelain
like a cup
discarded by the housewife
“porcelain” has the Webster hum of “piggy-pussy” (porcellana, porcello little pig vulva, vulva of porcus, pig). She uses the symbol “porcelain” and derivates of it in letters of the early sixties and late fifties, and in a few poems of the time. “housewife” can have the meaning of “sexton” sometimes for she keeps the “house at home”. Thus the sentence says clearly that Bowles has maneuvered both of them into the position of kept women, compelled to wait for his beck and call.
quaint or broken
a newer Sevres pleases
old ones crack
While he keeps this piggypussies in reserve, he is really tired of them. The “newer Sevres” could well refer to Maria Whitney, for it has been reported ( Jay Layda, The years and Hours of Emily Dickinson, lxxviii, Yale University Press 1960) that she was with Bowles frequently during his convalescence in Northhampton in October 1861. A touch of jealousy can be read into this final sentence of section I. The poem was quite probably written about that time, end of 1861.
The meaning of this first section is therefore quite unmistakeable: "I cannot live with you (in a lesbian household, somewhere abroad) because we are both prisoners of Bowles and cannot escape his clutches.
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
In strict symbolic meaning this should mean “I Cannot have orgasm with you”. But we must take this second section also in it s outer meanings, in balance with the first one. It would then mean: “we cannot commit suicide together since you are afraid you might fail in the attempt and survive”. This single stanza will not come through clearly, and it is possibly one she could not manage better.
Nor can it be taken in secret sexual sense as: "I cannot have orgasm with you, for you can only take the passive role and it is for me to “shut your gaze down”. This would contradict all the descriptions in which Kate comes out in the active role, and also those in which reciprocity in the roles seems to have been practised clearly.
I must interpret section II as saying: “we cannot commit suicide together”.
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
This, undoubtedly, must be taken in the outer, univocal sense: "in a life after death, if there is one, I could not rise to heaven with you “because your face would put out Jesus’ ….”
But there is room here for an interpretation with an inner meaning: “If you think our solution should be that we keep on with a tripartite relationship with Bowles, I could not follow you in that, not anymore. I am now so in love with you and so dependent on your clitoris for my sexual appeasement, I could not take his glans. (”Jesus" being symbol for Bowles’ glans/penis, “Jesus” is also synonymous with his “face”: precisely with his glans. “Your face” on the other hand, is “your clitoris”.
It makes better sense to take section III with the inner meaning: "a menage a trois is no more possible for us, at least not for me!
Having made this choice, I must reconsider whether section II has not an inner meaning also. It could have this: "If you want to die, that is, simply walk away from it all, I cannot follow you in that, for, without you I would simply have to tale up with Bowles again. Your “dying” would mean to you to marry some man again. Would you expect me to go in a nunnery then? Do I not have my right of “frost” also, in that case?
Thus she really argues her choices with herself: 1. I cannot have Kate. 2. I cannot have Bowles. 3. A further ménage a trois is out of the question also.
They’d judge us how?
In this section, it seems, the hope in her that cannot, wants not to die, returns to a contemplation of how it would be if she and Kate were to defy Bowles’ interdiction, flee, live together until they would be caught and then taken to court. She tries to argue their defense. For Kate she can advance the fact that she at least had Jesus served her stretch of duty in marriage to a man.
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
To “serve heaven” means to be married to a man and give him the “heaven” he expects in the marriage bed. That she adds: “or sought to” is a clear indication that Kate found as little satisfaction in her legitimate marriage to Campbell Ladd Turner as E. did her liaison with Bowles. But the statement can have an added meaning: suppose the “they” in “they’d judge us” applies to Bowles, as it well may since all poems in which the term “judge”, or “judgement” appears deal with situations in which Bowles is either “god” or judge". Then the defense made in behalf of Kate acquires another meaning. It would be this: “you served Bowles, you know, or sought to”, and the “I could not” would corroborate the many hints in poems of the period that during the crisis E. converted so totally to the homosexual orientation that for a time she ceased having sexual relations with Bowles.
At the time of writing the poem it apparently still seemed intolerable to her to think of going hetero again and with him. All this is quite possible and despite the fact that jealousy of a new consort of his may be present in line 11 of this poem, and notwithstanding the fact that I have allowed above that the entire section II may be a contemplation of how a resumption of relations with him would work as a solution.
Whatever the arguments in this section IV really mean, the conclusion she did draw from them was one of hopelessness.
And were you lost I would be
though my name
on the heavenly fame
This is, perhaps, the bitterest statement in the poem. If I take the meaning of the symbol “lost” at its possible worst, it would say “and if you went down the gutter, I could too though I were famed of fuckers in the land: the best.”
And were you saved
and I condemned to be
where you were not
that self were hell to me
She has used the terms “lost” and “saved” mostly (perhaps always) in letters and poems addressed to women. They seem to have reference to woman’s fate in the marriage market. Thus “lost” would mean: “without a man, without being taken care of by a man”. “Saved” would mean the opposite: “having found a man, being taken care of by a man, being married”. Originally, the terms may have had sexual meaning with her, more than an economic one.
The gist of this section is: "if you should marry and live far from me (out of my reach), this, too would be 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
“So what sex we can have
you there I here
is by that door that opens on the tube
the semen flood, and those folding motions that gain us glans, and climax mutual or crumb
semen in the contraceptive