(Masterpieces of American Literature)

This poem is written as a riddle that challenges the reader to identify the speaker. On the literal level the speaker is a gun, loaded to do its owner’s bidding. Its “smile” is like a Vesuvian eruption, laying low its master’s enemies. None survive “On whom I lay a Yellow Eye—/ Or an emphatic Thumb—.” Though the master must live longer than the gun, the gun may also live longer than its master.

Critics have given this poem every variety of interpretation, almost none of them totally satisfactory. Most common (and least satisfying) is the argument that the poet is herself the loaded gun, waiting to be called by her master, the Lord, ready to fight her Lord’s battles, willing to make his enemies hers. Yet how can one reconcile this with the possibility of the gun’s outliving her master, except by admitting the possibility of a mortal deity?

Though Dickinson doubts and even despairs in some of her poems concerning matters of election and redemption, she never denies that a deity exists. In fact, poem 338 explicitly records her certainty that there is a divine presence. Similarly, it does no good to see this poem merely as an emblem of the poet’s personal, creative, or sexual frustration, as some critics have done.

Were one to have asked residents of Dickinson’s Amherst the solution to the final riddle stanza, however, it is likely that they would have answered that the master was Christ and the gun was death. Christ has authority over life and death as Son of the Father; even so, Christ died before death disappeared from the world of the living, and in this sense death outlived him.

Another interpretation embraces a more classical alternative. Myth traditionally pictures deities dealing out death with weapons: Zeus uses thunderbolts, Apollo and Artemis bows and arrows, Wotan a spear fashioned from the great ash tree which underpins creation. Seen in this way, death is both master and means. It uses whatever tool stands at the ready and creates opponents even as it destroys creation. The single consolation to universal creation, which will one day encounter death, is that neither death nor the tools it uses has eternal life.