Study Guide

My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun – Quotes

  • Violence

    My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun – (1)

    Rather than explicitly introducing violence in the first line, Dickinson sets up the potential for aggression. A loaded gun is an object with the potential for great violence, so making this kind of comparison to her life endows that life with similar ferociousness. The "Loaded Gun" is the central extended metaphor of the poem and seems to be critical in making sense of the poem's meaning.

    And now We hunt the Doe – (6)

    This is the first instance of real violence in the poem, and a continuation of the gun metaphor of the first line. The loaded gun is also a tool for hunting. The "Doe" is an interesting choice of words, because it seems to us to be a symbol of femininity and innocence. Thus, hunting of a doe may be a metaphor for the oppression of femininity and innocence.

    It is as a Vesuvian face (11)

    "Vesuvian" is derived from Mount Vesuvius, a mountain in central Italy, which erupted in 79 A.D., burying the city of Pompeii and most of its inhabitants. The word is used here to describe individuals with explosive tempers (hence the volcano). Dickinson’s choice of this word invokes both the anger implicit in the word and the violence of the eruption. A "face" is the obvious face on a person, but can also be a part of a mountain, such as a rock or cliff face.

    To foe of His – I'm deadly foe –
    None stir the second time – (17-18)

    This line is similar to the phrase "A friend of yours is a friend of mine," except replace "friend" with "foe." The speaker is saying that any enemy of her "Master" will get killed after the first time he "stirs." To "stir" can mean "to be aggressive," or in the most literal sense, "to move at all." If we saw it as a continuation of the doe image, then a stirring doe would certainly get shot just for moving if it were being hunted.

  • Power

    The Owner passed – identified –
    And carried Me away – (3-4)

    "The Owner" makes reference to the power inherent in ownership. It could be something outside of the speaker owning her, or it could be a part of the speaker owning her "Life," as in an emotion taking her over. The theme of ownership, agency, and power continues from this point.

    And every time I speak for Him –
    The Mountains straight reply – (7-8)

    At the very least, this quote describes an awe-inspiring event: mountains answering a woman. We’re not sure of the last time something as big as a mountain answered you, but it’s certainly been a while for us. These lines could also relate to the gun metaphor. If the speaker’s life is a gun, then her speech may be the shot of a gun. The reply of the mountains could then be the echo of a loud gunshot, thus symbolizing the power of her voice.

    I guard My Master's Head – (14)

    Much like the passage about the "Owner," the speaker’s reference here to her "Master" is a clear signpost of the power this person/thing has over her. One gets the image of a slave and master, the former at the beck and call of the latter. The fact that the "Master" is male is significant with regard to the theme of "Gender."

    To foe of His – I'm deadly foe –
    None stir the second time –
    On whom I lay a Yellow Eye –
    Or an emphatic Thumb – (13-16)

    Endowed with the power and willingness to kill, the speaker here describes her ability to strike down – literally and metaphorically – any foe of her "Master." The reference to a "Yellow Eye" could refer to giving someone the "evil eye," which is generally a sign of aggression or intimidation. It could also refer to the muzzle flash of a gun, if you want to stretch the interpretation a bit. The last line is similar. Thumbing your nose at someone was once a sign of aggression, and giving someone an "emphatic Thumb" is similar. Just like the "Yellow Eye," it could also refer to the gun metaphor. (The speaker could be calling up the image of the thumb used to cock a gun.)

    "For I have but the power to kill,
    Without – the power to die – " (23-24)

    These lines seem complicated, so let’s break them down. The speaker has the power to kill. With her power she is immortalized. Whatever it is that gives her the power to kill, she believes she has it – a belief, which would make anyone feel invincible. If the power to kill make her immortal, then losing the power to kill would rob her of that immortality. This is like saying, without her power, she is brought back to the mortal level and can die. Of course, we all have the power to die, but a passionate emotion like anger can make us believe that nothing can stop us.

  • Gender

    "The Owner passed – identified –
    And carried Me away – " (3-4)

    Though we don’t figure out that the Owner is male until the seventh line, we can look back at the use of "Owner" here with that in mind. Considering that almost all of Dickinson’s poems are written in the first person, we might assume the speaker is a woman. It would probably be a little much to say that the speaker is Emily Dickinson. Thus, the female speaker has a male "Owner." It implies that the man has power over the woman, that she lacks agency, and may even be a piece of property. This calls to mind issues such as the state of women in society, issues Dickinson may not have actively been referencing. The oppression of women is one possible interpretation of this poem, and you can find it here.

    "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 – " (13-16)

    This stanza certainly complicates the theme of "Gender." Where some would interpret the Owner/Master quality of the male figure as sexist, the power of the female speaker can’t be denied. In this stanza, she "guards" the "Master’s Head." She may be mistress to her "Master," but most mistresses aren’t endowed with the agency of "guarding" their master. By the end of the stanza, the speaker seems rather pleased with the arrangement, preferring to share the bed with him.

  • Mortality

    "To foe of His – I'm deadly foe –
    None stir the second time –" (17-18)

    This section refers to the speaker’s power to kill. She defends her "Master," implicitly killing any of his enemies. On a literal level, it actually means shooting and killing someone, since "none stir the second time" – because they’re dead. On a metaphorical level, "none stir the second" time could mean that they don’t challenge her "Master" a second time. They won’t necessarily have to die, but they may be intimidated by the speaker.

    "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 – " (21-24)

    While the threads of death and violence are woven throughout the poem, this last stanza is the most deeply involved in the theme of the speaker’s mortality. It implies that someone or something gives the power to kill to the speaker. Though she may live longer than him, he must live longer, because without the power to kill, she has the power to die.

    This is a very tricky stanza to understand. One reading would be that without the power to kill, she is left with the power to die. This would mean she has lost immortality. It could also mean that without "Him," she loses the power to kill and gains the power to die, therefore he "must" live longer than she lives. This could also relate to the mortality of the poet. Often the poem itself is seen to be part of the poet, an extension of his or her life through its continued existence. Often we say of a poet: "His life is immortalized in his work." Thus, the "death" of the poem could mean the death of the poet.