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

And now 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--


Most readers feel the power of this poem, which is based on rage. The speaker compares her life to an unused loaded gun and finds joy in fulfilling its purpose to kill. Even if you have never felt a rage so violent that you felt destructive or explosive, can you imagine what such a state must feel like? Does this poem convincingly portray such a rage?

The force of this poem strikes me every time I read it, and I am moved by it though its exact meaning eludes me. For the critic David Porter, its message lies "in its very indefiniteness. Significance rests not in what the poem says but in what it leaves out, what it cannot get into its words and therefore into consciousness." Dickinson may be attempting to express the Inexpressible, or perhaps she is struggling with what was inexpressible for her. In any event, I agree with Adrienne Rich's view of this poem:

...I think it is a poem about possession by the daemon, about the dangers and risks of such possession if you are a woman, about the knowledge that power in a woman can seem destructive, and that you cannot live without the daemon once it has possessed you. . . .

              I do not pretend to have--I don't even wish to have--explained this poem, accounted for its every image; it will reverberate with new tones long after my words about it have ceased to matter. But I think that for us, at this time, it is a central poem in understanding Emily Dickinson, and ourselves, and the condition of the woman artist, particularly in the nineteenth century. It seems likely that the nineteenth-century woman poet, especially, felt the medium of poetry as dangerous. . . Emily Dickinson's is the only poetry in English by a woman of that century which pierces so far beyond the ideology of the "feminine" and the conventions of womanly feeling. To write it at all, she had to be willing to enter chambers of the self in which

Ourself behind ourself, concealed--
Should startle most--
and to relinquish control there, to take those risks she had to create a relationship to the outer world where she could feel in control.

I will briefly discuss the view that this poem grows out of her anger at the narrow life allowed to Dickinson by her society and by her father. She felt forced to practice her art privately, that is, she wrote her poetry privately and shared it with only a few family members and friends. To be able to dedicate herself to poetry, she withdrew into seclusion. It was a heavy price to pay to be a poet. This poem, with its slaughter and its "Vesuvian" voice, expresses her rage at the restrictions on the woman poet, her sense of the power of language, and the sense of control that writing poetry gave her.

Try reading this poem by feeling the larger impressions, don't worry about understanding or puzzling out every line and word.

Analysis of Poem

In the past, she "had" stood in the corner, without a purpose. Then a hunter found her, knew her purpose since he was her "Master," and used her to express her purpose. The gun can be seen as language; the hunter's shooting-- the expression of the gun--is creating poetry. The "doe" (female deer) is hunted and presumably killed, just as women writers have to kill or suppress a part of themselves to write. Hunting in the wood re-establishes a relationship with nature, a frequent topic in Dickinson's poetry. It also gives a sense of control (the Woods are "Sovereign"). The Hunter/Owner/Master may symbolize the poet-part of the speaker, poetic inspiration, or poetry itself--or something else altogether. The speaker prefers to stand guard over her Master rather than share a soft downy pillow; she rejects the softer life, the homelier alternative. The speaker's purpose, power, and control are destructive and bring the her joy and satisfaction, until, perhaps, the last stanza. The last stanza is difficult, tangled and perhaps indicates some confusion in Dickinson's thinking.

Dickinson, Online overview
"For each ecstatic instant," p. 2
"I taste a liquor never brewed," p. 2
"Safe in their alabaster chambers," p. 3
"I heard a fly buzz when I died," p. 21
"It was not death, for I stood up," p. 22
"A bird came down the walk," p. 13
"I like to see it lap the miles," p. 27
"Pain has an element of blank," p. 31
"A narrow fellow in the grass," p. 44
"I'm nobody! Who are you?" p. 9
"After great pain a formal feeling comes" (handout)
"The soul selects her own society" (handout)
"The heart asks pleasure first," p. 24
"I'll tell you how the sun rose," p. 11
"Presentiment is that long shadow on the lawn," p. 36
"Success is counted sweetest" (handout)
"I cannot live with you," p. 29
"He fumbles at your spirit," p. 11
"I felt a cleaving in my mind," p. 43
"My life closed twice before its close," p. 49
"Wild nights! Wild nights!" p.5
"She sweeps with many-colored brooms," p. 3
"Hope is the thing with feathers," p. 5
"I felt a funeral in my brain," p. 8
"I had been hungry all the years," p. 26
"I started Early--took my Dog--" (handout)
"My life had stood a loaded gun" (handout)
"Because I could not stop for Death," p. 35
"If you were coming in the fall," p. 23
**Supplemental Reading**
      Sample Midtern and Student Answers

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