My life had stood—a Loaded Gun—

by Emily Dickinson

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Student Question

How does Dickinson's central metaphor in "My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun—" set up and defy reader's expectations?

Quick answer:

Dickinson initially sets up the reader's expectations with a sense of peaceful, tranquil coexistence between the gun and its owner. The gun is a valued weapon that serves the owner in hunting and in protecting his life. As the poem progresses, we are led to perceive that the gun has a more sinister side; it is capable of killing. This is most evident by the last two stanzas. However, Dickinson changes our perception of what we thought we knew about this weapon—it does not actually kill anyone because it cannot die itself.

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There are a variety of interpretations with regard to Emily Dickinson's poem "My life had stood—a Loaded Gun—" There may also be a variety of interpretations with regard to how the poem creates and changes the reader's expectations.

The speaker begins by noting that its life is at a standstill until its owner arrives, identifies it and carries it away. (The reader will hopefully, by now, realize the identify of "it," which is a gun.) The owner and his gun go into the woods together and the gun is used to hunt for deer. 

The entire poem personifies the gun. The author's imagery is impressive as she describes "speaking" for the owner, as well as the echoes from the mountains that convey a sense of the gun's report that is carried away, repeated through the air on which it travels.

Dickinson seems to set up the reader's expectations by providing descriptions of the gun that point not only to being the owner's constant companion and expressing power through each gun shot, but also the sense of being valued for the protection the gun offers:

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 -

The mood of the poem startlingly pivots. The gun is now not used only to hunt animals, but to confront the owner's enemy. A certain uneasiness enters into the intent behind the use of the gun.

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 imagery of death continues as the poem's pivotal movement stops with the suggestion of the owner's death. The gun recognizes that his owner may well die before him, but that it would be best for the weapon if that were not the case; for while the gun has the power (and purpose) to kill when guided by its owner, it cannot die itself, entering into a seeming state of limbo and uselessness.

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 reviewing the poem, the beginning presents the start of a relationship, the emergence of identity and purpose. The gun has, until this point, stood unheeded and unclaimed in a corner—forever waiting on another for its usefulness. While a weapon can be a daunting image, one might feel comfortable with images of hunting, traveling through the woods, and making a sound that echoes miles away. The first three stanzas convey not only a positive change in the gun's situation, but also the newness of camaraderie between man and gun. The positive expectation that has emerged in the beginning stanzas continues into the fourth, when the gun describes its importance in the man's life—for its owner may ever lay his head down and know a sense of peace and safety, and protection from harm that the weapon guarantees.

The expectation established and supported in the poem's first four stanzas changes dramatically in the fifth. A specter of death is presented. The owner's "foe" is presented—a vague threat; but more frighteningly "deadly foe" infers that the owner of the gun is armed and able—prepared— to act with deadly force.

It is in the final two stanzas that the poem defies the reader's expectations. The reader becomes aware of another side to the gun that has not been presented before. Whereas the first four stanzas describe the gun's benign existence, presenting no threat to any person, the fifth stanza describes that the gun never misses its mark: a man will not move again once he is shot by this owner and his weapon. The "yellow eye" brings to mind a predator—attacking. The image of "the emphatic Thumb" evokes the sense of malicious intent. There is no question of defense here, but of cool calculation as the shooter's thumb draws back the hammer of the gun, preparing to fire.

The final stanza presents the realization that the gun takes its purpose in the way the owner uses it. By the last section, the reader and the gun consider the death of the owner. It may be the cycle of life was we know it. Perhaps it has something to do with the way the owner engages his weapon. ("...all who draw the sword will die by the sword." Matthew 26:52)

The author allows that as with all things, there is a beginning and an end. While there was hunting and protection, there is now the image of death to contemplate. As a personified element in the poem, the gun does not face death at another's hand; it does not face death at all. While the owner may die, the gun has no such release. 

We could infer that Dickinson's poem addresses the phases of life: beginnings; days of thoughtless pleasure; a growing sense of power; the realization of responsibility that comes with the power to end something—particularly a life; and, the mortality of us all.

The author sets up the reader's expectations using the metaphor of the gun. For the first four stanzas, the expectations are met with positive perceptions. However, by the last two stanzas, Dickinson defies these perceptions with the realizations of life, and conversely, death. 

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