I bring thee Proof
That till I loved
I never lived — Enough — *[I] did not live
That I shall love alway —
I argue thee * [I] offer
That love is life — *[love] be
And life hath Immortality —
This — dost thou doubt — Sweet —
Then have I
Nothing to show
But Calvary —
J549, Fr652 (1863)
Short as it is, the poem makes me think of Shakespearean sonnets. We have arguments for love that outlasts time, a potentially doubtful beloved, and plenty of Elizabethan thees and thous sprinkled throughout. We even have something that sounds a lot like a closing couplet.
John Drury, in The Poetry Dictionary, writes that historically sonnets often present "an argument, perhaps a romantic plea in the guise of a legal brief." The first sonnets, Drury says, were composed and exchanged in the early 13th century by Sicilian notaries (lawyers of the day) and their Emperor, Frederick II.
Granted, Dickinson is no lawyer, but she lived with lawyers. Granted, this poem is not fourteen lines nor are the lines in iambic pentameter. Consequently, the arguments are not well developed, but Dickinson cleverly presents only the line of argument rather than the argument itself, thus achieving her trademark compaction.
In the first stanza the speaker claims she always loved the elided (and assumed) You. Her proof? That until she loved she was never truly alive (or alive enough). This is a rather sophististic way of getting around all those years when the speaker did not "always love." What the Beloved, and at least a few readers, really want, however, is some real Proof, but we suspect the speaker's assertions will have to suffice. Shakespeare would flesh this out a little, but Dickinson holds back.
Having claimed the past, the speaker next argues deductively that her love will always endure: since love is life and life "hath Immortality" her love will therefore be immortal (this would be a valid but perhaps not sound deductive argument, but her point is taken). The ED Lexicon helps us out by suggesting that Immortality in this poem means "Timelessness; an infinite dimension." Love, then, operates outside of time. As Shakespeare would have it, Love is not "Time's fool" (Sonnet 116).
In the final stanza the speaker addresses her beloved directly. It begins with "This" – a pronoun without a clear antecedent. Whether it refers to the argument immediately preceding or to both first and second stanzas is of little consequence. Should the Sweet beloved doubt, then the speaker has nothing else to show but pain and misery.
Overall, the arguments seem half hearted and unconvincing. And surely if the Beloved shows doubts after hearing them, the speaker has other recourse besides donning the anguish of Calvary.
And yet… I like the poem. It reads well and doesn't really call for logical rigor and abundant proofs. The claims make emotional sense and there are some fine lines and phrases. Dickinson weaves the poem together with love and life: four repetitions of "love" and three of some version of "live" or "life". It is another, more subliminal way of saying that love is life.