Emily Dickinson’s Poem, “My Life had stood–a Loaded Gun–“

I’d like to offer an existentialist interpretation of Emily Dickinson’s famously perplexing poem, “My Life had stood–A Loaded Gun–” (poem 754 in her collected works). Here’s the poem:

My Life had stood–a Loaded Gun–

In Corners–till a Day

The Owner passed–identified–

And carried Me away–

__

And now We roam in Sovereign Woods–

And now We hunt the Doe–

And every time I speak for Him–

The Mountains straight reply–

__

And do I smile, such cordial light

Upon the Valley glow–

It is as a Vesuvian face

Had let it’s [its] pleasure through–

__

And when at Night–Our good Day done–

I guard My Master’s Head–

Tis better than the Eider-Duck’s

Deep Pillow–to have shared–

__

To foe of His–I’m deadly foe–

None stir the second time–

On whom I lay a Yellow Eye–

Or an emphatic Thumb–

__

Though I than He–may longer live

He longer must–than I–

For I have but the power to kill,

Without–the power to die–

What might this “Loaded Gun” be a trope for? My thought is that it’s the directionless and fearful self–the self lacking an immortality project (some family, aesthetic, religious, or nationalist purpose for ordering energies toward leaving a legacy). This is the self standing idle “In Corners,” free, but not really knowing what to do with itself. This is the self that ultimately dies. The mortal, godless, and doubting self, “a stranger and afraid / In a world I never made” (A.E. Housman).

Then this self gets converted. It generates a before-and-after testimony of being swept away from purposelessness into an immortality project larger than its mortal self (in this case, a religious one, becoming a tool of God):

My Life had stood–a Loaded Gun–

In Corners–till a Day

The Owner passed–identified–

And carried Me away–

This is a very Protestant, evangelical–even charismatic–way to talk, and it’s the very thing in real life that Emily Dickinson could never do: give her uniqueness, solitude, and existential freedom over to the will of another (whether to God, a husband, or a cause). Dickinson saw herself as “a kangaroo among the beauty,” a freak, a misfit, and her “Loaded Gun” poem is an ironic critique of the things we give ourselves over to for the sake of meaning, and the consequent rages against Nature and other human beings that follow in our defenses of it:

To foe of His–I’m deadly foe–

None stir the second time–

On whom I lay a Yellow Eye–

Or an emphatic Thumb–

We obtain our immortality by killing at various levels, and we display great confidence where we know that it is actually not warranted, putting us in what Sartre would call “bad faith.” Thus we kill the “little” self–the formerly free but flailing self–to obtain a delusional self– the “bigger” self that we imagine going on after death. We “speak for Him,” not ourselves–we become the instrument to Another’s purposes–and so live under the curse of puppetry:

For I have but the power to kill,

Without–the power to die–

Our immortality projects are paid for with great violence. That’s my reading of Dickinson’s poem.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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9 Responses to Emily Dickinson’s Poem, “My Life had stood–a Loaded Gun–“

  1. halfbakedlog says:

    I can’t agree that “Our immortality projects are paid for with great violence” here in this poem. I feel more this way:
    Her loaded gun is impotent until her power as a poet breaks out. A power that I, old-fashionly, believe is straining toward the spiritual; not a Christian or religious type, but one striving toward the limits of knowledge. I think she found peace in her vision which only came to her in the strength of her scribblings. Here she was free, here she used her weapon. Her poems are her immortal link to us. Those limits may very well be anything: Calvinistic or even atheistic. The straining for a glimpse, tantalizes. Art can see. I belong to another age.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      I certainly don’t mean to be reductive in my reading. There are lots of potential ways the language of the poem could suggest itself to the psyche–I just offered one that seemed consistent throughout the poem to me.

    • crystal says:

      i think you are right because in the poem the master is imp to the gun in emily d poetry is imp for her because is where she can write her feelings

  2. gavin smithers says:

    The loaded gun is the speaker’s life. The poem is about the devoted ecstasy which accompanies the sense of wellbeing we feel when we are at one with the world (Nature) we occupy; and how difficult it is to sustain, because of the “hours of lead”, the despair etc which we are prone to.

    I agree that ED is existentialist- she is interested in what lies at the end of knowledge- but this poem- in its concern with frontiers- is more a reflection on transcendentalism. It’s about the wholeness we feel when we “roam” and explore our own nature, and the nature of our world.

    The extended use of one metaphor (here, the gun) throughout the whole of a poem is unusual for ED. It enables her to make the point in the final stanza- that the gun is incapable of a physical dying, but that its owner has “the power to die”. Death is but the hour before dawn (see poem 721), in the sense that the “divine” is diversified and duplicated down the generations, and in the sense that “This World is not Conclusion” (501).

    I believe that we can build a coherent understanding of ED’s world view from reading the poems. In this one, there’s no getting away from the fact that the so-called violence is not presented negatively. In a world where a gun culture/ hunting and shooting were normal, the violence is not a moral problem. The loaded gun has the potential for being at one with nature but that can’t be fulfilled until it is fired.

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