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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

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

established order.

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.

Claudia Yukman

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

master’s head.

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

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