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have been led to different candidates, with the fragmentary evidence pointing in several
directions inconclusively, has deepened my conviction that "he" is not a real
human being whom Dickinson knew and loved and lost or renounced, but a psychological
presence or factor in her inner life. Nor does the identification of "him" with
Jesus or with God satisfactorily explain many of the poems, including the poem under
discussion here. I have come, therefore, to see "him" as an image symbolic of
certain aspects of her own personality, qualities and needs and potentialities which have
been identified culturally and psychologically with the masculine, and which she
consequently perceived and experienced as masculine.
Carl Jung called this "masculine" aspect of the woman’s psyche her
"animus," corresponding to the postulation of an "anima" as the
"feminine" aspect of the man’s psyche. The anima or animus, first felt as the
disturbing presence of the "other" in one’s self, thus holds the key to
fulfillment and can enable the man or the woman to suffer through the initial crisis of
alienation and conflict to assimilate the "other" into an integrated identity.
In the struggle toward wholeness the animus and the anima come to mediate the whole range
of experience for the woman and the man: her and his connection with nature and sexuality
on the one hand and with spirit on the other. No wonder that the animus and the anima
appear in dreams, myths, fantasies, and works of art as figures at once human and divine,
as lover and god. Such a presence is Emily Dickinson’s Master and Owner in the poem.
However, for women in a society like ours which enforces the subjection of women in
certain assigned roles, the process of growth and integration becomes especially fraught
with painful risks and traps and ambivalences. Nevertheless, here, as in many poems,
Dickinson sees the chance for fulfillment in her relationship to the animus figure, indeed
in her identification with him. Till he came, her life had known only inertia, standing
neglected in tight places, caught at the right angles of walls: not just a corner, the
first lines of the poem tell us, but corners, as though wherever she stood was thereby a
constricted place. But all the time she knew that she was something other and more.
Paradoxically, she attained her prerogatives through submission to the internalized
masculine principle. In the words of the poem, the release of her power depended on her
being "carried away"–rapt, "raped"–by her Owner and Master.
Moreover, by further turns of the paradox, a surrender of womanhood transformed her into a
phallic weapon, and in return his recognition and adoption "identified" her.
Now we can begin to see why the serious fantasy of this poem makes her animus a hunter
and woodsman. With instinctive rightness Dickinson’s imagination grasps her situation in
terms of the major myth of the American experience. The pioneer on the frontier is the
version of the universal hero myth indigenous to our specific historical circumstances,
and it remains today, even in our industrial society, the mythic mainstay of American
individualism. The pioneer claims his manhood by measuring himself against the unfathomed,
unfathomable immensity of his elemental world, whose "otherness" he experiences
at times as the inhuman, at times as the feminine, at times as the divine–most often as
all three at once. His link with landscape, therefore, is a passage into the unknown in
his own psyche, the mystery of his unconscious. For the man the anima is the essential
point of connection with woman and with deity.
But all too easily, sometimes all too unwittingly, connection–which should move to
union–can gradually fall into competition, then contention and conflict. The man who
reaches out to Nature to engage his basic physical and spiritual needs finds himself
reaching out with the hands of the predator to possess and subdue, to make Nature serve
his own ends. From the point of view of Nature, then, or of woman or of the values of the
feminine principle the pioneer myth can assume a devastating and tragic significance, as
our history has repeatedly demonstrated. Forsaking the institutional structures of
patriarchal culture, the woodsman goes out alone, or almost alone, to test whether his
mind and will are capable of outwitting the lures and wiles of Nature, her dark children
and wild creatures. If he can vanquish her–Mother Nature, Virgin Land–then he can assume
or resume his place in society and as boon exact his share of the spoils of Nature and the
service of those, including women and the dark-skinned peoples, beneath him in the
In psychosexual terms, therefore, the pioneer’s struggle against the wilderness can be
seen, from the viewpoint, to enact the subjugation of the feminine principle, whose dark
mysteries are essential to the realization of personal and social identity but for that
reason threaten masculine prerogatives in a patriarchal ordering of individual and social
life. The hero fights to establish his ego-identity and assure the linear transmission of
the culture which sustains his ego-identity, and he does so by maintaining himself against
the encroachment of the Great Mother. Her rhythm is the round of Nature, and her
sovereignty is destructive to the independent individual because the continuity of the
round requires that she devour her children and absorb their lives and consciousness back
into her teeming womb, season after season, generation after generation. So the pioneer
who may first have ventured into the woods to discover the otherness which is the clue to
identity may in the end find himself maneuvering against the feminine powers, weapon in
hand, with mind and will as his ultimate weapons for self-preservation. No longer seeker
or lover, he advances as the aggressor, murderer, rapist.
As we have seen, in this poem Emily Dickinson accedes to the "rape," because
she longs for the inversion of sexual roles which, from the male point of view, allows a
hunter or a soldier to call his phallic weapon by a girl’s name and speak of it, even to
it, as a woman. Already by the second stanza "I" and "he" have become
"We": "And now We roam in Sovreign Woods– / And now We hunt the
Doe–," the rhythm and repetition underscoring the momentous change of identity.
However, since roaming "in Sovreign Woods–," or, as the variant has it, roaming
"the–Sovreign Woods–" is a contest of survival, it issues in bloodshed.
"To foe of His–I’m deadly foe," she boasts later, and here their first venture
involves hunting the doe. It is important that the female of the deer is specified, for
Dickinson’s identification of herself with the archetype of the hero in the figure of the
woodsman seems to her to necessitate a sacrifice of her womanhood, explicitly the range of
personality and experience as sexual and maternal woman. In just a few lines she has
converted her "rape" by the man into a hunting-down of Mother Nature’s creatures
by manly comrades–Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook in The Last of the Mohicans, Natty
Bumppo and Hurry Harry in The Deerslayer.
[. . . .]
In the psychological context of this archetypal struggle Emily Dickinson joins in the
killing of the doe without a murmur of pity or regret; she wants the independence of will
and the power of mind which her allegiance with the woodsman makes possible. Specifically,
engagement with the animus unlocks her artistic creativity; through his inspiration and
mastery she becomes a poet. The variant for "power" in the last line is
"art," and the irresistible force of the rifle’s muzzle-flash and of the bullet
are rendered metaphorically in terms of the artist’s physiognomy: his blazing countenance
("Vesuvian face"), his vision ("Yellow Eye"), his shaping hand
("emphatic Thimb"), his responsive heart ("cordial light"). So it is
that when the hunter fires the rifle, "I speak for Him–." Without his
initiating pressure on the trigger, there would be no incandescence; but without her as
seer and craftsman there would be no art. From their conjunction issues the poem’s voice,
reverberant enough to make silent nature echo with her words.
In Hebrew the word "prophet" means to "speak for." The prophet
translates the wordless meanings of the god into human language. Whitman defined the
prophetic function of the poet in precisely these terms: "it means one whose mind
bubbles up and pours forth as a fountain from inner, divine spontaneities revealing
God…. The great matter is to reveal and outpour the God-like suggestions pressing for
birth in the soul."’ Just as in the male poetic tradition such divine inspiration is
characteristically experienced as mediated through the anima and imaged as the poet’s
muse, so in this poem the animus figure functions as Dickinson’s masculine muse. Where
Whitman experiences inspiration as the gushing flux of the Great Mother, Dickinson
experiences it as the Olympian fire: the gun-blast and Vesuvius. In several poems
Dickinson depicts herself as a smoldering volcano, the god’s fire flaring in the bosom of
the female landscape. In her first conversation with the critic Thomas Wentworth
Higginson, Dickinson remarked: "If I feel physically as if the top of my head were
taken off, I know that is poetry. Is there any other way."
But why is the creative faculty also destructive, Eros inseparable from Thanatos? To
begin with, for a woman like Dickinson, choosing to be an artist could seem to require
denying essential aspects of herself and relinquishing experience as lover, wife, and
mother. From other poems we know Dickinson’s painfully, sometimes excruciatingly divided
attitude toward her womanhood, but here under the spell of the animus muse she does not
waver in the sacrifice. Having spilled the doe’s blood during the day’s hunt, she stations
herself for the night ("Our good Day done–") as stiff, soldierly guard at
"My Master’s Head," scorning to enter the Master’s bed and sink softly into
"the Eider-Duck’s/ Deep Pillow." Her rejection of the conventional sexual and
domestic role expected of women is further underscored by the fact that the variant for
"Deep" is "low" ("the Eider-Duck’s /Low Pillow") and by the
fact that the eider-duck is known not merely for the quality of her down but for lining
her nest by plucking the feathers from her own breast. No such "female
masochism" for this doeslayer; she is "foe" to "foe of His," the
rhyme with "doe" effecting the grim inversion.
Moreover, compounding the woman’s alternatives, which exact part of herself no matter
how she chooses, stands the essential paradox of art: that the artist kills experience
into art, for temporal experience can only escape death by dying into the
"immortality" of artistic form. . . .
Both the poet’s relation to her muse and the living death of the artwork lead into the
runic riddle of the last quatrain. It is actually a double riddle, each two lines long
connected by the conjunction "for" and by the rhyme:
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–
In the first rune, why is it that she may live longer than he but he must
live longer than she? The poet lives on past the moment in which she is a vessel or
instrument in the hands of the creative animus for two reasons–first, because her
temporal life resumes when she is returned to one of life’s corners, a waiting but loaded
gun again, but also because on another level she surpasses momentary possession by the
animus in the poem she has created under his inspiration. At the same time, he must transcend
her temporal life and even its artifacts because, as the archetypal source of inspiration,
the animus is, relative to the individual, transpersonal and so in a sense
The second rune extends the paradox of the poet’s mortality and survival. The lines
begin to unravel and reveal themselves if we read the phrase "Without–the power to
die" not as "lacking the power to die" but rather as "except for the
power to die," "unless I had the power to die." The lines would then read:
unless she were mortal, if she did not have the power to die, she would have only the
power to kill. And when we straighten out the grammatical construction of a
condition-contrary-to-fact to conform with fact, we come closer to the meaning: with
mortality, if she does have the power to die–as indeed she does–she would not have only
the power to kill. What else or what more would she then have? There are two clues. First,
the variant of "art" for "power" in the last line links "the
power to die," mortality, all the more closely with "the power to kill,"
the artistic process. In addition, the causal conjunction "for" relates the
capacity for death in the second rune back to the capacity for life in the first rune.
Thus, for her the power to die is resolved in the artist’s power to kill, whereby she dies
into the hypostasized work of art. The animus muse enables her to fix the dying moment,
but it is only her human capabilities, working in time with language, which are able to
translate that fixed moment into the words on the page. The artistic act is, therefore,
not just destructive but in the end self-creative. In a mysterious way the craftsmanship
of the doomed artist rescues her exalted moments from oblivion and extends destiny beyond
"dying" and "killing."
Now we can grasp the two runes together. The poet’s living and dying permit her to
be an artist; impelled by the animus, she is empowered to kill experience and slay herself
into art. Having suffered mortality, she "dies into life," as Keats’s phrase in Hyperion
has it; virgin as the Grecian urn and the passionate figures on it, her poetic self
outlasts temporal process and those climactic instants of animus possession, even though
in the process of experience she knows him as a free spirit independent of her and
transcendent of her poems. In different ways, therefore, each survives the other: she
mortal in her person but timeless in her poems, he transpersonal as an archetype but
dependent on her transitory experience of him to manifest himself. The interdependence
through which she "speaks for" him as his human voice makes both for her
dependence and limitations and also for her triumph over dependence and limitation.
Nevertheless, "My life had stood–a Loaded Gun–" leaves no doubt that a
woman in a patriarchal society achieves that triumph through a blood sacrifice. The poem
presents the alternatives unsparingly: be the hunter or the doe. She can refuse to be a
victim by casting her lot with the hunter, but thereby she claims herself as victim. By
the rules of the hunter’s game, there seems no escape for the woman in the woods. Emily
Dickinson’s sense of conflict within herself and about herself could lead her to such a
desperate and ghastly fantasy as the following lines from poem 1737:
Rearrange a "Wife’s" affection!
When they dislocate my Brain!
Amputate my freckled Bosom!
Make me bearded like a man!
The violent, exclamatory self-mutilation indicates how far we have come from the
pieties of Mrs. Sigourney and her sisters.
Fortunately for Dickinson the alternatives did not always seem so categorical. Some of
her most energetic and ecstatic poems–those supreme moments which redeemed the travail
and anguish–celebrate her experience of her womanhood. The vigor of these dense lyrics
matches in depth and conviction Whitman’s sprawling, public celebration of his manhood. At
such times she saw her identity not as a denial of her feminine nature in the name of the
animus but as an assimilation of the animus into an integrated self.
From "Emily Dickinson and the Deerslayer: The Dilemma of the Woman Poet in
America." In Shakespeare’s Sisters: Feminist Essays on Women Poets.
Copyright ? 1979 by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar.
The object status of a subject within a narrative is dramatically played
out in Dickinson’s frequently discussed poem, "My
Life had stood — a Loaded Gun — ." In this poem the subject fears the permanence of
the text as much as death, or rather,
fears the overdetermination of her subjectivity by the text more than "the power to
[. . . .]
The term "identified" elsewhere in Dickinson’s poetry and in her
culture at large refers to the conversion experience that
authorizes the Christian to view his or her life as typified by the narrative of Christ’s
life. To be able to tell this story, like learning
language, permits the individual to be a Christian to another Christian and to herself.
Dickinson’s poem is told by the object it is
about and thus gives expression to the object positions we all occupy within
social-symbolic codes. The Christian narrative form in this poem is enacted as the
object/instrument life of the gun. The master gives dramatic form to the prior narrative,
master story, which confers identity on the gun. The "Sovereign Woods" designate
the limits within which both the master and
gun are free, an analogue for the freedom invented by, but limited to, the Christian
But during the process of the poem the object (the gun) increasingly takes on subject
status. Already in the second verse the gun speaks "for" the master, which is to
say she perceives her function as an extension of his power: his will and figuratively,
his voice. But in the mountain’s reply to this speech the gun experiences her own singular
effect on the world. In the third verse she no longer acts for the master but describes an
exchange between herself and the mountain. There is a greater equality between the gun and
the mountain than between the master and the gun because they respond to each other’s
alterity or otherness. Interestingly, this situation of alterity and reciprocity is
represented as the elision of narrative (in the loss of a syntactical antecedent to the
pronoun "it") in the line "It is as a Vesuvian face / Had let its pleasure
through." In recognizing the alterity symbolized by the "reply" of the
mountain, which entails that it recognize its own otherness, the gun experiences an
identity distinct from her purpose in the master’s life (or the master story). In the
fourth verse, though she still serves her master by "guarding his head," the gun
expresses preference for the pleasure her autonomy and alterity allow her."’Tis
better than the Eider-Duck’s / Deep pillow — to have shared — " to guard the
But perhaps more significantly, in the next to the last stanza she speaks
of herself as bodily. In effect, the master disappears, his story, the prior narrative,
eclipsed by the difference rendered as the gun’s increasing embodiment.
To foe of His — I’m deadly foe —
None stir the second time —
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye —
Or an emphatic Thumb –
Again, as was the case in "I heard a Fly buzz — when I died,"
the narrative frame is broken by the bodily frame of experience.
The object of the story becomes a subject at the same time it comes to perceive itself as
Given this reading of the poem, the ambiguity of the ending, "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 — " (like "to see to see") represents the difficulty and
relative success Dickinson has in creating a text that will preserve a relationship of
equality between herself and her reader, imaged in the exchange between the gun and the
mountain within the poem. Dickinson is using a text to free herself from the restrictive
and destructive freedom of the Christian narrative frame. We, her readers, come upon her
poem as a prior text, which we may read as our master story because it is prior. The
danger of inventing a new relationship between writer and reader is suggested in the
figures of the gun and the mountain. They are both images of potential violence, and their
unchecked pleasure or power, if we take the allusion to the volcano Vesuvias literally,
would ultimately be desructive of life. In other words, there is a danger in escaping one
form of identity only to become mastered by another. In our desire for identity we bring
the words we read, whether those of the Bible or Dickinson’s poem, to life. The words that
liberate us in turn become the limits of identity. Dickinson’s works demonstrate that the
only way to prevent oneself from being "framed" by language is to keep writing
one’s way out.
from "Breaking the Eschatological Frame: Dickinson’s Narrative
Acts." Emily Dickinson Journal Vol. 1, No. 1 1992. Online source: http://www.colorado.edu/EDIS/journal/articles/I.1.Yukman.html
- ... CHASE Emily Dickinson’s poems on death are scattered in ... HOEPFNER A comment by Richard Chase on Emily Dickinson’s "Because I Could ... ANDERSON [Emily Dickinson's] finest poem on the funeral ceremony [is " ... of reference, how imposingly on the figural scale the ...
- ... the first — Crowned — Crowing — on my Father’s breast — A half unconscious ... baptism corresponded to Jesus’ mortification on Golgotha—a humbling experience over which ... expectations because its power depends on conformity within established symbology. Situated ...
- ... case attention should be centered on the feeling itself and ... what the previous poems on pain merely note. Dickinson ... behavior, because it relies on predetermined patterns, because it ... appears throughout her poetry on mental experience. This particular ...
- ... "seal" (suggesting the seal on some important official document), and ... thing, they are predicated on a structure of simultaneous ... in a lifetime’s musing on essential problems of language, ... sometimes–," Dickinson probably relied on the memoirs of American ...
- ... , uncertain, stumbling," and emphasis on the finite physical reality goes ... speaker’s concern is focused on others, for being the center ... poem is so predicated on the phenomenon of displacement and ... this poem, they buzz ‘on the/ chamber window,’ and speckle ...