‘My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun’ by Emily Dickinson is a six stanza poem that is separated into sets of four lines, or quatrains. The poem does not have a title, and instead goes by either its first line or the number 764. This was the case for almost all of the poetry she wrote. ‘‘My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun’ does not conform to one particular pattern of rhyme. Instead there are moments of half/slant and full rhymes scattered throughout the text. For instance, in the first and last stanzas the second and fourth lines rhyme.
Repetition also plays a major role in this piece. Whether that is the repetition of hunting, or the textual repetition of “And now” (also known as anaphora) in the second stanza.
Images and Symbols
Dickinson also makes use of a number of images, the most important of which is the gun. No matter what one sees as the appropriate interpretation of this piece, the “gun” in question is always going to represent power . They have an inherent danger associated with them and in this case it is used as a symbol for the speaker’s life and the power her worlds hold.
Nature also plays an important role in the text. There is a hunted “Doe,” the presence of night, and a reference to Mount Vesuvius. The speaker uses repetition of describe the process of hunting, day in and day out, in the “Sovereign Woods.” It is also important to note what hunting itself represents. It is at the same time a destructive sport, a skill, and an outlet for anger. Then there is the doe to consider, it is there as the female focus of the speaker’s anger.
It is important to keep in mind while reading this piece that there are a number of different interpretations associated with the text. The “Owner” and “Master” can stand in for God, a power wielding lover, or the speaker’s own anger. Of these many different interpretations this analysis will focus on the husband as Owner and the hidden power of a woman’s words.
Summary of ‘My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun’
‘My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun’ by Emily Dickinson describes the sleeping power of a woman who is being wielded by a Master in a male dominated world.
The poem begins with the speaker stating that her life has existed up as a “Loaded Gun” in a corner. Then one day passes where an “Master” comes along and carries her away. This person is likely a man, her husband, who wields much more power in the world than she is allowed to. Now that she is at his side, more like an accessory or tool than partner, she is taken deeper into the male world. From her new position she is made to hunt a “doe” or female deer and is pushed back when she attempts to assert her own opinion.
It is clear in the next stanza that anger is building up inside the speaker. She does not give into it though. She puts on a smiling face, as would be expected of her, and keeps her anger inside. The speaker does express though what would’ve happened if she’d allowed herself to show her true emotion. Her calm face would have become volcanic, like Vesuvius, and exploded anger over the “Valley.”
The next stanza takes the reader to the end of the day when all the man’s deeds are done and the wife has served her purpose. As she is still embodied as the gun, she is set at his head, and he goes to sleep. Although this is not the traditional way man and wife should sleep, she is fine with this arrangement. Her femininity and position as “wife” is stripped away just as an Eider Duck takes its own feathers for its bed.
In the final two stanzas the speaker describes how to her Master’s foes she is a great weapon She is deadly to any who cross him, a fact she has no control over. This state of being is combined with her own interior power she is unable to express. She has a critical eye and a trigger-happy “Thumb” she is longing to make use of for her own purposes. The last lines describe how the speaker is conflicted over the fact that she is going to outlive her “Master” (since she is an inanimate object). This is state that does not benefit her as she needs him (as a representative of humanity) to live on to see, read, and know her words.
Analysis of ‘My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun’
My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun –
In Corners – till a Day
The Owner passed – identified –
And carried Me away –
In the first stanza of this piece Dickinson begins with one of her most prominent calling cards, a dash. It separates the phrase “My Life had stood” from “a Loaded Gun.” Dickinson’s poetry is often complicated. She is known to mix up the syntax of a sentence, making the lines sound more poetic, but also harder to understand. A technique known as parataxis. In this instance her speaker is stating that their life “had stood” in a “Corner” like a “Loaded Gun.”
These lines tell a reader that the speaker is seeing herself as separate from her own life. She has zoomed back from it, and is imagining it as its own force. It is personified and given an agency that “life” as a simple force would not normally possess.
The image of a loaded gun is an inherently dangerous one but also one that speaks to a middle ground. The gun is not passive, yet it is not active either. Her life existed there, in some sort of purgatorial waiting-room, till something happened.
A particular “Day” occurs when the “Owner” passes by. It’s unclear how, but the “Life” and the “Owner” recognize one another and the “Life” is carried away. The separation between the speaker and her life ends in the fourth line. She now refers to the two of them together as “Me.”
When one considers all the possible interpretations for who or what this “Owner” is, the most likely answer is a husband who has enough agency in the world to move the speaker’s life out of the corner.
And now We roam in Sovereign Woods –
And now We hunt the Doe –
And every time I speak for Him
The Mountains straight reply –
Now that the husband, or owner, has picked up the female speaker they are together able to “roam in Sovereign Woods.” Again, this line can have multiple meanings, but likely refers to the male dominated world she is now forced to step into. It is important to keep in mind in the second line that the speaker is said to “hunt the Doe.” A doe always refers to a female deer, an important distinction. Her participation in the world of men allows her to observe the destruction of women.
The next two lines are somewhat cryptic, especially when a reader seeks out a deeper meaning. She states that every time she “speak[s] for Him,” or fires the gun or uses her own words in a male dominated world, she is confronted by “The Mountains.” They come back with a reply, or echo, straightaway. Her voice is pushed back to her, making no impact on the larger world. Perhaps she is taunted with a “straight reply” or told off for being too presumptuous.
And do I smile, such cordial light
Opon the Valley glow –
It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let it’s pleasure through –
In the third stanza a reader must continue to keep in mind the function of a gun, and the traditional social place of a woman. The speaker describes how she smiles and a “cordial light” glows out “Upon the Valley.” Here again is another reference to the “Mountains” of the second stanza. She is able to step back from the assertive words of the second stanza and return to the emotionless mask men expect from women.
The next lines speak on a second way of being. She chose to “smile” rather than let her “Vesuvian face” through. If she had done the later, then her pleasure, in the form of volcanic rage would’ve poured out on a valley instead.
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 –
This day in the life of a husband and wife comes to a close in the fourth stanza. She is turning in for the night, with their “good Day done.” The wife, as a gun, is there at her “Master’s Head” during the night. The gun guards the husband as he sleeps and the speaker describes it as being a more important component to his rest than a “Eider Duck’s / Deep Pillow.”
This stanza marks another separation for the speaker from the traditional life of a wife. Rather than sharing a pillow with her husband, she is placed near his head, perhaps on the wall. The line about the “Eider Duck” refers to a type of duck that pulls out its own feathers to make a nest. It, in a way, destroys itself to bring itself more comfort. This speaks to the way that the speaker is taking away the elements that make her “wife” in order to improve her overall situation.
To foe of His – I’m deadly foe –
None stir the second time –
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye –
Or an emphatic Thumb –
The fifth stanza is the most violent of the poem. The speaker describes how to “foe of His” and to all others like them, she is “deadly.” She has a power that every once in a while seeps out from the gun and knocks down anyone in its sight. Those who are in the way do not “stir the second time.” When taken into consideration with the other stanzas a reader might wonder if the speaker is eventually going to move from being a deadly foe to”His” foes to a deadly foe to “Him.”
The last two lines of the stanza speak about the gun going off, triggered by the “emphatic Thumb” and seen in a burst of “Yellow” from the “Eye” or barrel. At the same time these phrases could refer to the speaker’s own words and opinions about the world. This connects with the hidden “Vesuvian face” of the third stanza. When it comes out, it is powerful.
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 sixth stanza is also rather complex. The speaker is mourning over how she is going to outlive “Him.” This is due to the fact that she is still embodied as a gun. This does not please her as her words depend on the presence of human beings to allow them life. He must live longer than she does for her words to become immortal and remain to be read by others. This seems like an impossibility at this point.
In the final lines she speaks on her actions as a “gun” or as a speaker/writer/narrator of life. She can put words out there, say a critical line, kill someone, but never take back an action. The speaker is at once happy to outlive her “Owner” and at the same time, willing herself to die before him.