Study Guide

My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun – Analysis

  • Sound Check

    This poem is roughly in common meter (check out "Form and Meter" for more on the technical aspects of common meter). "Amazing Grace" is also in common meter. Sing the first stanza to the tune of "Amazing Grace" and you’ll see for yourself. Common meter is very popular in hymns since it is easy to sing along to and has a nice, sing-songy rhythm.

    However, as you probably noticed, the fact that most of the poems by Dickinson have a similar sound to hymns is pretty strange considering their intensity and negative mood. Dickinson was fully aware that she was borrowing from the hymnal tradition in writing like this. It would be as if your favorite band wrote a song to the tune of the national anthem – everyone would notice and there would be a point. In Dickinson’s case, this rhythm gives the poem a smooth sound. It’s almost chant-like in its rhythm, fit for a congregation; however, its content is decidedly not. It sounds like a hymn, but only until you make sense of the words.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    There is no formal title to this poem. As with most poems without titles, it’s referred to by its first line. In general, Dickinson’s poems are also accompanied by numbers corresponding to the order in which she wrote them. (This one is usually known as "754.") However, considering there is no key indicating the order of her work, scholars disagree constantly. In other words, there are different number sets, which means titles can become confusing. To be on the safe side, stick to the first line.

  • Setting

    The setting is a very vague one, but it helps in understanding the poem to think of it "taking place" in three settings. The first stanza would be around town. We picture the speaker standing in dark corners when "The Owner" passes by on the sidewalk, and carries her away. Then they roam in the "Sovereign" forest for a few stanzas. We imagine it’s a dark and dense forest in which the speaker lurks. Then, the scene seems to shift to a bedroom or house. The speaker and her "Master" lie in bed together as she guards him.

  • Speaker

    This poem is about the inner life of the speaker. Many poets write about their lover, some write about nature or war. Dickinson almost always has her speakers contemplating themselves in some way. Here the speaker possesses an uncanny insight into the workings of her inner self, and is able to see the interplay of experience, emotion, and intellect with incredible clarity.

    To consider just one example, the use of dashes creates the feeling that the speaker is talking. These dashes fall at places where a person might take a breath or pause to contemplate her next words. There is a chance that the speaker is a male, but a small one considering the speaker’s relationship to the male "Owner" or "Master" (they share a bed, and Dickinson was writing in the 1800s). She says she’s a gun, which is a pretty intense thing to think about. Who wakes up and says, "I feel like a sawed-off shotgun today"? Well, this speaker does. She doesn’t mess around. She can blow her top with a smile.

  • Tough-O-Meter

    (8) Snow Line

    Most of Dickinson’s poems are in the 7-9 range on the Tough-O-Meter for their length, so she’s not a beginner’s poet. This poem falls about dead center, by our estimation. Its confusing syntax, numerous dashes, and strange language all make it hard to even get going. Yet the themes in this poem aren’t as hard to wrap your mind around as those in some of her other poems. Several of her famous ones, like "There’s a certain Slant of light," or "I started early – took my dog," are incredibly mysterious, whereas this one starts with a relatively neat comparison to a loaded gun. This image isn’t too difficult because we can picture it in our minds.

  • Calling Card

    Dashes!

    Dashes – for heaven's sake – dashes! There really isn’t anyone before Dickinson who used lots of dashes, and anyone after likely took a cue from her. Excessive use of dashes is such a Dickinson calling card that any poem with a bunch of dashes must either be by Ms. Dickinson herself or someone trying to be as cool as she is.

  • Symbols, Imagery, Wordplay

    Welcome to the land of symbols, imagery, and wordplay. Before you travel any further, please know that there may be some thorny academic terminology ahead. Never fear, Shmoop is here. Check out our "How to Read a Poem" section for a glossary of terms.

    Life and Death

    Though many elements of this poem are ambiguous, we know that there is some sort of collaboration taking place between the speaker’s life and the anger she feels. At times, these two concepts (life and anger) are separate entities. Other times, they are united. In any case, the concept of life weaves its way in and out of the poem.

    • Line 1: The reference here to "My Life" is personified, because it is an abstracted concept that is treated as if it were able to stand like a person.
    • Lines 3, 5-7, 13-14, 17, 21-22: These lines contain references to "The Owner," "Master," "He," "Him, "His," and "Us," "We" and "Our." This is the central personification of the poem, and most people argue that they all refer to the same entity. The critics disagree on who or what the speaker is referencing. Is it the speaker’s anger? Is it the poet or artist within the speaker? Is it art itself? If it’s an abstract concept (like art), feeling (like anger), or some other intangible thing, then it would be personification. If it refers to a real, live person, then it wouldn’t be – these things get a little tricky sometimes. Depending on you interpretation, the language can do different things for you.
    • Line 13: In this line we see "Night’ and "Day" contrasted with one another. In this way, we understand "Night" to be a symbol for death, and "Day" to be a symbol for life. We get the sense that our speaker is approaching death at this point, her day’s work being done.

    The Gun

    The gun is a symbol of power and violence. Guns are dangerous, because they have the power to take life away instantly. By introducing us to a gun in the first line, our speaker makes sure that we are on edge and attentive throughout the remainder of the poem.

    • Lines 1, 6, 17, 23: The gun becomes an extended metaphor throughout the poem as it becomes representative of the speaker’s power. It is loaded, she can hunt with it, and it’s deadly.

    Nature (and its dark side)

    Our speaker brings up some fairly violent examples of nature in this poem: a doe being hunted in "Sovereign Woods," a volcanic mountain with a deadly track record, and a species of duck that plucks its own feathers in order to create a cushy pillow. Nature forms the slightly menacing backdrop – the wallpaper, if you will – of this poem.

    • Line 5-7: In this verse in which our speaker discusses hunting and talking to mountains, we see an example of anaphora in the repetition of the phrase "and now We." This repetition makes the act of hunting or roaming the woods seem like a very methodical task that our speaker does regularly. This section almost sounds like a recipe.
    • Line 5: The "Sovereign Woods," with all of that capitalization, seem important (like the king of all woods). Perhaps these woods are a symbol of life, death, or afterlife. Perhaps they are the world of art through which our speaker makes a path. In any case, we know that when woods appear in literature and poetry, they often indicate that the speaker, narrator, or character is far away from civilization or is lost in a maze of ideas and problems.
    • Line 6: Hunting is a metaphor for letting anger loose, and the doe is a symbol for the thing that our speaker is angry at or that needs killing. It is interesting to note that does are female deer. In this way, the concept of gender is stirred up in the world of the poem.
    • Line 8: The "Mountains" are personified, because they reply to our speaker. This could mean that the mountains create an echo, repeating her words, but the language here leads us to believe that the mountains are doing some chit-chatting.
    • Line 11: Here our speaker makes an allusion to Vesuvius, the volcano that erupted in 79 A.D. in northern Italy. "Vesuvian face" is a simile for the speaker’s smile. The presence of this volcano in this poem helps us feel and sense how much anger the speaker has and how much destruction this anger is capable of producing. The "Vesuvian face" contradicts the pleasurable connotations of a smile. As a result, we have a smile described in a very violent way.
    • Line 15-16: An "Eider-Duck’s Deep Pillow" is a metaphor for our speaker’s pillow. You actually don’t need to know much about Eider ducks, other than that in order to make its nest the Eider duck may pluck feathers from itself to make it. One interpretation is that the speaker sleeping with her "Master" and guarding him is somehow both a nurturing and self-destructive act.
    • Sex Rating

      G

      You’d be hard pressed to find much sexiness in this poem. There is a reference to sharing a pillow in stanza four, but you’d have to have one vivid imagination to take it much further than that.