My life had stood—a Loaded Gun— Analysis

Emily Dickinson

The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun—” (the title is not Emily Dickinson’s, since she did not title her poems) is a short poem of twenty-four lines divided into six stanzas. The poem is written in the first person from the point of view of a speaker who compares her life to “a Loaded Gun.” In fact, the voice of the speaker and the voice of the gun are identical throughout the poem.

In the opening stanza of the poem, the speaker tells how her life—of which she speaks as if it were “a Loaded Gun”—had been full of potential power yet unused and inactive (“a Loaded Gun—/ In Corners”) until its “Owner” came by, “identified” it, and carried it away. The speaker (as gun) then contrasts, beginning in the second stanza, what her life is like now that she has been claimed and put into use by her “Owner.” Together, the speaker (gun) and her owner are free to wander anywhere they like (“We roam in Sovreign Woods”) and have the power and authority to pursue even the prized game of royal reserves (“And now We hunt the Doe”).

Halfway through the second stanza, however, the speaker begins to turn away from the power of the royal “We” and to focus instead on her own sense of emerging individual power: “And every time I speak for Him—/ The Mountains straight reply.” In these lines, the speaker usurps the owner’s right to speak for himself. Moreover, whereas in the past the speaker’s life has stood “In...

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My life had stood—a Loaded Gun— Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The most important poetic device in the poem is the metaphor, a figure of speech used to denote an idea (or an object) by suggesting an analogy or likeness between them. The metaphor of the speaker’s life as a gun, in fact, occurs in three stages, structuring the poem in terms of the speaker’s past, present, and future life. The speaker first reveals that in the past her life was like a passive “Loaded Gun.” She then—for the greater part of the poem (the central four stanzas)—moves into a narration of her life in the present by comparing her life to a gun that is actively engaged in firing. By the final stanza, the speaker contemplates the future of her life as if it were an empty gun, devoid of its bullet, its “emphatic Thumb.”

The metaphoric qualities of the poem become increasingly complex as the speaker develops additional metaphors to characterize the primary metaphor, the gun. The gun’s fire is spoken of as if it were a “smile,” a volcanic (“Vesuvian”) eruption, and a “Yellow Eye,” and the gun’s bullet becomes an “emphatic Thumb.” This layering of metaphor upon metaphor functions to underscore—within the language and experience of the poem itself—those qualities of repression and masking that are central to the poem’s theme regarding the expression of will and power.

This sense of repression and disguise with respect to power is further enhanced in the poem by the speaker’s tone or attitude...

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My life had stood—a Loaded Gun— Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Boruch, Marianne. “Dickinson Descending.” The Georgia Review 40 (1986): 863-877.

Brantley, Richard E. Experience and Faith: The Late-Romantic Imagination of Emily Dickinson. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Carruth, Hayden. “Emily Dickinson’s Unexpectedness.” Ironwood 14 (1986): 51-57.

Eberwein, Jane Donahue. An Emily Dickinson Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998.

Ferlazzo, Paul, ed. Critical Essays on Emily Dickinson. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984.

Grabher, Gudrun, Roland Hagenbüchle, and Cristanne Miller, ed. The Emily Dickinson Handbook. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998.

Juhasz, Suzanne, ed. Feminist Critics Read Emily Dickinson. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983.

Kirk, Connie Ann. Emily Dickinson: A Biography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004.

Lundin, Roger. Emily Dickinson and the Art of Belief. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 2004.

MacNeil, Helen. Emily Dickinson. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986.

Pollack, Vivian R. A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Vendler, Helen Hennessey. Poets Thinking: Pope, Whitman, Dickinson, Yeats. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004.