Literature Study GuidesPoems Of Emily Dickinson SelectedMy Life Had Stood A Loaded Gun Summary

Poems of Emily Dickinson (Selected) | Study Guide

Emily Dickinson

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My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun—

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Emily Dickinson's poem "My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun—."

Poems of Emily Dickinson (Selected) | My Life had stood--a Loaded Gun-- | Summary



In this poem, written in Dickinson's usual ballad meter, the speaker compares herself to a loaded gun, sitting passively "In Corners" until the owner identifies it as his own and carries it away. The speaker and the gun's owner hunt in the woods, and the gun, when shot, speaks for its master, creating a sound that echoes in the mountains. At the same time it emits a flash of light, which the speaker compares to the eruption of a volcano (Mount Vesuvius in Italy). At night the gun guards its "Master's Head" and finds doing so better than sleeping on the softest of pillows. The foe of its master's foes, the gun kills them with one shot. In the final stanza the gun says although it may live longer than its master, the master must outlive the gun because even though the gun can kill, it cannot die.


This poem describes a symbolic gun and its owner. Some interpretations of the poem equate the gun as a symbol of the speaker's anger, others as possession by demons, and others as female empowerment. It is as if the speaker's unused potential ("a Loaded Gun— / In Corners") is finally put to use when its owner and master identify it. In this way the gun may represent a subordinate entity activated and subservient to its master, protective but still dependent.

From the beginning to the end of the poem, the gun goes from passivity to action. But later, in the fifth stanza, the gun seems to act on its own, laying "a Yellow eye— / Or an emphatic Thumb" on its master's foes. The final stanza contains examples of the kind of paradox and enigma found in many of Dickinson's poems. While it is paradoxical the gun can kill but not die, it's not clear why the owner must outlive the gun.

One way of reading this poem is that the gun represents Dickinson the poet while the master stands for a male muse who inspires her. Another way of reading it is to imagine the gun speaking as the primal impulse of the Master, representing his desire to kill his enemies. A third way to read it is in light of the three Master letters Dickinson wrote between 1858 and 1862 to an unidentified male figure she admired in which she expressed a longing for a Master. According to this reading, she is glad to have been identified and owned but wishes to die before he does.

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