A Short Analysis of Emily Dickinson’s ‘My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun’

A reading of a classic Dickinson poem by Dr Oliver Tearle

‘My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun’ is one of Emily Dickinson’s most popular poems. Yet it is also an extremely subtle and elliptical piece of poetry, whose meaning proves elusive. In this post, we’re going to explore some of the implications of Dickinson’s central comparison between ‘My Life’ and ‘a Loaded Gun’, analysing the language and imagery of the poem.

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 –

Few Emily Dickinson poems have quite baffled critics like ‘My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun’. (And this is Emily Dickinson we’re talking about: there are plenty of baffling poems among her oeuvre.) For Adrienne Rich, the poem is ‘about possession by the daemon, about the dangers and risks of such possession if you are a woman, about the Emily Dickinsonknowledge that power in a woman can seem destructive, and that you cannot live without the daemon once it has possessed you.’

It’s true that ‘My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun’ may have arisen out of Emily Dickinson’s attitude to her father, and the sense that she felt compelled to write her poems in secret (as is well known, very few were published during her lifetime). The poem’s central metaphor of a loaded gun to describe the speaker’s life suggests pent-up rage, as does the reference to Mount Vesuvius, the volcano whose eruption in the year 79 famously wiped out Pompeii.

Yet the gun itself is typically construed as masculine, and the ‘Owner’ is explicitly stated as being male, ‘Him’. And the Owner uses the Loaded Gun to hunt and kill a ‘Doe’ – as that old song has it, a female deer. A delicate, graceful, feminine animal is hunted by the man and his masculine toy. The superiority of the (masculine) gun to the ‘Eider Duck’s / Deep Pillow’ (eiderdown being traditionally used in bedding, owing to its softness) is another piece of quietly gendered symbolism: the duck, of course, is the female bird, and the softness of the eider’s feathers marks the duck’s ‘Soft Pillow’ out as feminine. It’s almost like the nineteenth-century poetic version of ‘Happiness is a Warm Gun’.

Sometimes Dickinson’s language becomes constrained, with key words missing, making it difficult to ascertain the mood and meaning:

And do I smile, such cordial light
Upon the Valley glow –
It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let its pleasure through –

In other words, ‘And if I do smile, such a cordial light glows upon the Valley; it is as if a Vesuvian face had let its pleasure through’. In other other words, pulling the trigger and making the gun ‘smile’ releases a warm glow upon the surrounding landscape, as if a volcano had erupted. Again, rather a masculine image (even sexual, given the reference to ‘pleasure’?). The release of the bullet from the gun is like a sexual act of release.

The final stanza appears to pose a sort of riddle, arguing that although the gun lives longer than its owner – because a gun, being an inanimate object, is not mortal – in actual fact the mortal owner of the gun lives longer, because he lives in the first place. A gun has only the power to kill, but no awareness of death and therefore of life and what it means. It’s almost as if Dickinson were penning a subtle critique of the pro-gun lobby, championing human life over the power of the gun. Perhaps she was.

Like many of Emily Dickinson’s poems, ‘My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun’ eludes easy analysis, though the image of a loaded gun suggests energy and power (and destructive power at that) which is pent-up only to be released. The poem can be read as an exploration of the relationship between humans (especially men) and guns and as a reflection of Dickinson’s own pent-up creativity. And perhaps there are other interpretations. How do you read it?

If you want to own all of Dickinson’s wonderful poetry in a single volume, you can: we recommend the Faber edition of her Complete Poems. You can discover more about her work with our analysis of her poems ‘I cannot live with you’, ‘Because I could not stop for Death’, and ‘A narrow Fellow in the Grass‘.

The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.


  1. Pingback: 10 of the Best Emily Dickinson Poems Everyone Should Read | Interesting Literature

  2. I barely know E.D. and her work. I’ve just read this poem for the first time. To me, it is lovely and visual, and filled with optimistic themes.
    In stanza 1, is companionship after loneliness.
    In stanza 2 she’s a powerful partner, a provider of sustenance (a dead doe) – while letting the reader hear the crack of the shot – as he, the owner, gives her the power to speak for him, as an equal – and both are rewarded by the approving echo from the mountains.
    In stanza 3 there is a joined pleasure – as the brilliant light (from the end of the barrel of the gun) of their cooperative effort brings bright satisfaction.
    Stanza 4 shows trust – he sleeps while she watches over him.
    Stanza 5 is loyalty – she kills in one shot any who cross him – her yellow eye (again, the visual blast at the end of the barrel) and the “emphatic thumb” (the gun’s hammer), dictate finality to any who cross him. In this stanza they work as one.
    In the final stanza we encounter eternal love as she wills them each to live on forever.
    In my interpretation, the loaded gun is her capacity to be all these things to someone.

  3. My first reflection is that some men are very agressive, and they perceive a woman on the same line as an item that is to their own disposal, and nobody else. My second thought is that Emily Dickinson resisted the solution to use a real gun.

  4. This one is tough. There are enough allusions and metaphors to conjure up a lament against men (her father, thwarted love interest, men in general) or it could the connection of how men rule the world because they have the power (guns, killing). With this type of poem I simply shrug my shoulders and store it in the enigma column of E.D.