Emily Dickinson, “I have no Life but this” (1398)

I have no Life but this (1398)
Emily Dickinson

I have no Life but this —
To lead it here —
Nor any Death — but lest
Dispelled from there —

Nor tie to Earths to come —
Nor Action new —
Except through this extent —
The Realm of you —


At first glance, a love poem of the “you are my everything” sort. It starts with a pathetic plea, “I have no Life but this.” Then things get peculiar: “To lead it here?” The phrase comes out of nowhere and makes little sense. All we can say is that the speaker’s life leads something “here.”

That does not seem like much of a life, but the speaker lacks death too. Unless “dispelled” – not quite expelled, but the use feels the same – “from there.” Huh? I thought she was bringing something “here!”

So where does this riddling immortality reside? It isn’t bound to any particular future, or anything the speaker does from now on. It is dependent on someone we assume a beloved. Going back to the first stanza, a lover drags her life into the immediacy of the present, puts herself and all she knows under a spell.

This is a sort of immortality, but it is a stasis. There is no forethought or action apart from the beloved. But if the beloved accepts, then the lover is no less a prophet, a creator (“tie to Earths to come”/”action new”). Yes, it is a love poem – one about how crazy love is.