My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun –

Here’s an Emily Dickinson poem that’s been widely studied by scholars. I’m still not sure what to make of it. I can, however, connect it to what I’ve experienced in my life. My personal comments follow.

My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun –
In Corners – till a Day
The Owner passed – identified –
And carried Me away –

And We roam in Sovereign Woods –
And now We hunt the Doe –
And every time I speak for Him –
The Mountains straight reply –

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 –

To foe of His – I’m deadly foe –
None stir the second time –
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye –
Or an emphatic Thumb –

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 –

c. 1863

Emily Dickinson Poems, Edited by Brenda Hillman
Shambhala Pocket Classics, Shambhala 1995

This poem has kept me coming  back for well over a year. Here are a few thoughts about the poem, which reads more like a small story or long riddle than a philosophical or political point of view.

This poem is at least indirectly about Emily. It’s about her life as a prolific poet, a well-known figure in her setting, and lover of the outdoors. And the reality that she is a woman. My first comment, then, is that she’s contemplating her life as she has experienced it. A loaded gun standing there in the corner–waiting, as something she doesn’t fully own.

The action begins only after the owner appears, identifies himself and carries her away. Not as a person, but as a weapon that will benefit him. It strikes me as sad that the adventure is in the forests, valleys and mountains she loves to roam. We know this from other poems. Yet now her function isn’t to talk to the animals, the trees or the birds, but to do her owner’s bidding. Shoot to kill, on demand. Beginning with a Doe about which we know nothing more.

Emily comments on her new-found ‘half-life’ (my term, not hers). Her Master depends on her to do his bidding. Not some of the time, but spectacularly, all the time. She finds comfort in this new-found power to guard her Master’s head, as well as in the reputation and safety she now enjoys as the rifle/voice of the Master.

It’s a messy situation. We don’t know where Emily stands with all this. In the last stanza she struggles with an unresolved question about power. If her Master dies, what will happen to her? Perhaps she fears she’ll be picked up by someone else and used as his obedient, powerful speaker/killer. Surely she didn’t enjoy killing that Doe.

The poem reminds me of times when so-called Owners used me, beginning with my father. In these situations they used my voice or my words without my permission, to distort truth or amplify their own power. I often wished I could die or disappear.

©Elouise Renich Fraser, 16 August 2018
Photo found at Nature Photography, jonrista.com