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On 754 ("My Life Had Stood–a Loaded Gun–") Essay, Research Paper

Adrienne Rich

There is one poem which is the real "onlie begetter" of

my thoughts here about Dickinson; a poem I have mused over, repeated to myself, taken into

myself over many years. I think it is a poem about possession by the daemon, about the

dangers and risks of such possession if you are a woman, about the knowledge that power in

a woman can seem destructive, and that you cannot live without the daemon once it has

possessed you. The archetype of the daemon as masculine is beginning to change, but it has

been real for women up until now. But this woman poet also perceives herself as a lethal


[. . . .]

Here the poet sees herself as split, not between anything so simple as

"masculine" and "feminine" identify but between the hunter, admittedly

masculine, but also a human person, an active, willing being, and the gun–an object,

condemned to remain inactive until the hunter–the owner–takes possession of it. The gun

contains an energy capable of rousing echoes in the mountains, and lighting up the

valleys; it is also deadly, "Vesuvian"; it is also its owner’s defender against

the "foe." It is the gun, furthermore, who speaks for him. If there is a

female consciousness in this poem, it is buried deeper than the images: it exists in the

ambivalence toward power, which is extreme. Active willing and creation in women are forms

of aggression, and aggression is both "the power to kill" and punishable by

death. The union of gun with hunter embodies the danger of identifying and taking hold of

her forces, not least that in so doing she risks defining herself–and being defined–as

aggressive, is unwomanly ("and now we hunt the Doe"), and as potentially lethal.

That which she experiences in herself as energy and potency call also be experienced as

pure destruction. The final stanza, with its precarious balance of phrasing, seems a

desperate attempt to resolve the ambivalence; but, I think, it is no resolution, only a

further extension of ambivalence.

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–

The poet experiences herself as loaded gun, imperious energy; yet without the Owner,

the possessor, she is merely lethal. Should that possession abandon her–but the thought

is unthinkable: "He longer must than I." The pronoun is masculine; the

antecedent is what Keats called "The Genius of Poetry."

I do not pretend to have–I don’t even wish to have–explained this poem, accounted for

its every image; it will reverberate with new tones long after my words about it have

ceased to matter. But I think that for us, at this time, it is a central poem in

understanding Emily Dickinson, and ourselves, and the condition of the woman artist,

particularly in the nineteenth century. It seems likely that the nineteenth-century woman

poet, especially, felt the medium of poetry as dangerous, in ways that the woman novelist

did not feel the medium of fiction to be. In writing even such a novel of elemental

sexuality and anger as Wuthering Heights, Emily Bront? could at least

theoretically separate herself from her characters; they were, after all, fictitious

beings. Moreover, the novel is or can be a construct, planned and organized to deal with

human experiences on one level at a time. Poetry is too much rooted in the unconscious; it

presses too close against the barriers of repression; and the nineteenth-century woman had

much to repress.

From "Vesuvius at Home: The Power of Emily Dickinson." Reprinted in On

Lies, Secrets, and Silences. (W.W. Norton, 1979).

Paula Bennett

No poem written by a woman poet more perfectly captures the nature, the difficulties,

and the risks involved in this task of self-redefinition and self-empowerment than the

poem that stands at the center of this book, Emily Dickinson’s brilliant and enigmatic

"My Life had stood–a Loaded Gun":

[. . . .]

Composed during the period when Dickinson had reached the height of her poetic prowess,

"My Life had stood" represents the poet’s most extreme attempt to characterize

the Vesuvian nature of the power or art which she believed was hers. Speaking through the

voice of a gun, Dickinson presents herself in this poem as everything "woman" is

not: cruel not pleasant, hard not soft, emphatic not weak, one who kills not one who

nurtures. just as significant, she is proud of it, so proud that the temptation is to echo

Robert Lowell’s notorious description of Sylvia Plath, and say that in "My Life had

stood," Emily Dickinson is "hardly a person at all, or a woman, certainly not

another ‘poetess.’"

Like the persona in Plath’s Ariel poems, in "My Life had stood,"

Dickinson’s speaker has deliberately shed the self-protective layers of conventional

femininity, symbolized in the poem by the doe and the deep pillow of the

"masochistic" eider duck. In the process the poet uncovers the true self within,

in all its hardness and rage, in its desire for revenge and aggressive, even masculine,

sexuality (for this is, after all, one interpretation of the gun in the poem). The picture

of Dickinson that emerges, like the picture of Plath that emerges from the "big strip

tease" of "Lady Lazarus" (CP245) and other Ariel poems, is not an

attractive one. But, again like Plath, Dickinson is prepared to embrace it

nevertheless–together with all other aspects of her unacceptable self. Indeed, embracing

the true or unacceptable self appears to be the poem’s raison d’etre, just as it is the

raison d’etre of Plath’s last poems.

In writing "My Life had stood," Dickinson clearly transgresses limits no

woman, indeed no human being, could lightly afford to break. And to judge by the poem’s

final riddling stanza, a conundrum that critics have yet to solve satisfactorily, she knew

this better than anyone. As Adrienne Rich has observed, Dickinson’s underlying ambivalence

toward the powers her speaker claims to exercise through her art (the powers to

"hunt," "speak, " "smile," "guard," and

"kill") appears to be extreme. Of this ambivalence and its effect on women

poets, Rich has written most poignantly, perhaps, because of her own position as poet. For

Rich there is no easy way to resolve the conflict entangling Dickinson in the poem.

"If there is a female consciousness in this poem," she writes,

it is buried deeper than the images: it exists in the ambivalence toward power, which

is extreme. Active willing and creation in women are forms of aggression, and aggression

is both "the power to kill" and punishable by death. The union of gun with

hunter embodies the danger of identifying and taking hold of her forces, not least that in

so doing she risks defining herself–and being defined–as aggressive, as unwomanly

("and now We hunt the Doe"), and as potentially lethal.

Yet despite these dangers and despite her recognition of the apparent dehumanization

her persona courts, in "My Life had stood" Emily Dickinson does take precisely

the risks that Rich describes. In the poem’s terms, she is murderous. She is a gun. Her

rage is part of her being. Indeed, insofar as it permits her to explode and hence to

speak, rage defines her, unwomanly and inhuman though it is. Whatever constraints existed

in her daily life (the breathless and excessive femininity so well described by her

preceptor, Thomas Wentworth Higginson), inwardly it would seem Emily Dickinson was not to

be denied. In her art she was master of herself, whatever that self was, however

aggressive, unwomanly, or even inhuman society might judge it to be.

Given Dickinson’s time and upbringing, it would, of course, have been unlikely that

she, any more than we today, would have been comfortable with the high degree of anger and

alienation which she exhibits in this extraordinary poem. But the anger and the alienation

are there and, whether we are comfortable or not, like Dickinson we must deal with them.

If, as Adrienne Rich asserts, "My Life had stood–a Loaded Gun" is a

"central poem in understanding Emily Dickinson, and ourselves, and the condition of

the woman artist, particularly in the nineteenth century," it is so precisely because

Dickinson was prepared to grapple in it with so many unacceptable feelings within herself.

Whatever else "My Life had stood" may be about, it is about the woman as artist,

the woman who must deny her femininity, even perhaps her humanity, if she is to achieve

the fullness of her self and the fullness of her power in her verse.

From My Life a Loaded Gun: Dickinson, Plath, Rich, and Female Creativity.

Copyright ? 1986 by Paula Bennett. Reprinted with permission of the author.

Cristanne Miller

In "My Life had stood" [. . .] Dickinson compares an action in the present

tense to one in the past or present perfect:

And do I smile, such cordial light

Upon the Valley glow–

It is as a Vesuvian face

Had let 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–

In the first instance, the speaker/Gun compares her smile to the aftermath of a

volcanic eruption. Her smile is not like the volcano’s fire or threat but like its

completed act: when she smiles it is as if a volcano had erupted. The past perfect verb is

more chilling than the present tense would be because it signals completion, even in the

midst of a speculative ("as if’) comparison; her smile has the cordiality of ash, of

accomplished violence or death, not just of present fire. In the second instance, the

speaker prefers guarding the master to having shared his pillow, that is, to having shared

intimacy with him–primarily sexual, one would guess from the general structure of the

poem. Again, the comparison contrasts action with effect rather than action with action

(and when I guard . . . ’tis better than sharing … ). As a consequence, the speaker

seems ironically and almost condescendingly distant from the world of life (here, of

potential life-creation or love). Shared intimacy, in her view, would bring nothing better

than aggressive self-reliance does. Both uses of the perfect tense in this poem distance

the speaker from humanity, perhaps as any skewed analogy would. Yet by allying herself

with catastrophic power rather than sexual intimacy, she may also be indicating that the

former seems more possible or safer to her; even the power of volcanoes may be known. The

change in tense alerts the reader to the peculiarity and the importance of the


From Emily Dickinson: A Poet’s Grammar. Copyright ? 1987 by Harvard

University Press.

Mary Loeffelholz

The Dickinson poem that Rich so presciently invoked in 1965, "My Life had stood–a

Loaded Gun" (poem 754), has since then attracted diverse interpretations, especially

feminist interpretations. It has become the locus of discussion for feminist critics

concerned about accounting in some way for the aggression of Dickinson’s poetry, beginning

with Rich herself. In her 1975 essay "Vesuvius at Home," Rich names "My

Life had stood–a Loaded Gun–" as the "’onlie begetter"’ of her vision of

Dickinson, the poem Rich had "taken into myself over many years."’ The language

of Rich’s critical essay suggestively echoes the issues of the poems Dickinson had already

haunted and would later haunt for Rich. While not explicitly violent in the way of

Dickinson’s loaded gun, Rich’s metaphor of incorporating, eating Dickinson’s poem

establishes, but only to transgress, the boundary between inside and outside. Invoking the

dedication to the "onlie begetter" of Shakespeare’s sonnets identifies

Dickinson’s poem with a male literary tradition (although the overriding aim of Rich’s

essay is to link Dickinson to other women writers) and identifies Dickinson herself with a

phallic power (the loaded gun’s power) of inseminating Rich’s thoughts. It is hardly

necessary to add that Rich’s language is intimately, evocatively complicit in these

respects with the language of Dickinson’s poem itself. What it means to be inside or

outside another identity; what it means to "take in" or possess; the very

meaning of a boundary–are put into question by "My Life had stood–a Loaded

Gun–." In this and other poems, Dickinson’s often violent transactions with what is

"outside" her reflect a situation for women poets of the dominant Anglo-American

tradition in which, according to Joanne Feit Diehl, "the ‘Other’ is particularly

dangerous … because he recognizes no boundaries, extending his presence into and through

herself, where the self’s physical processes, such as breath and pain, may assume a male

identity." The male Other who occasions her speech may also commandeer her very

bodily identity, leaving nno refuge of interiority that is her own. Adrienne Rich’s

reading of "My Life had stood—" internalizes Dickinson’s struggle with the

problem of boundary and violence, rendering Dickinson both as the Other male ravisher and

as an aspect of Rich’s own interior.

From Dickinson and the Boundaries of Feminist Theory. Copyright ? 1991 by the

Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

Albert Gelpi

Despite the narrative manner, it is no more peopled than the rest of Dickinson’s poems,

which almost never have more than two figures: the speaker and another, often an anonymous

male figure suggestive of a lover or of God or of both. So here: I and "My

Master," the "Owner" of my life. Biographers have tried to sift the

evidence to identify the "man" in the central drama of the poetry. Three

draft-"letters" from the late 1850s and early 1860s, confessing in overwrought

language her passionate love for the "Master" and her pain at his rejection,

might seem to corroborate the factual basis for the relationship examined in this poem,

probably written in 1863. However, as I have argued elsewhere, the fact that biographers

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