Study Guide

My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun – Stanza I

By Emily Dickinson

Stanza I

Lines 1-4

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

  • We’re going to take these lines slowly. Among major poets, Dickinson is about as far away from easy-to-read prose as you can get.
  • You know that handy stuff known as syntax – putting words in an order that allows you to understand what’s being said? Dickinson is known for turning syntax on its head (through a technique called parataxis).
  • Let’s dive in and take it slow.
  • The poem begins "My Life had stood." We know right away that there’s a person out there – a speaker – who is directly involved. (Since she says "my,” we know she possesses something.)
  • What does she possess? A Life.
  • What had this life done? It had stood.
  • (We know this seems incredibly tedious, but it will pay off in the end because we’ll know who or what is doing things.)
  • A note on the capitalization: really academic people who have studied Dickinson their entire lives haven’t agreed on what her use of capitalization means. It means something, but it’s hard to say what it signifies beyond the literal meaning of the word.
  • In the case of "Life," it’s personified (an abstract concept that's treated like a person); it’s more than the "life" you’d mean in "get a life!" It might encompass far more, it might be metaphorical.
  • Continuing on to the second half of line 1, we get the famous Dickinson dash, a likely place for her to try to shake you while she messes with the syntax.
  • "My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun –" What does that mean? Let’s put together some likely candidates.
  • "My Life had stood like/as a Loaded Gun;" "My Life had stood next to a Loaded Gun;" "My Life had stood in front of a Loaded Gun."
  • To help us figure out which one to choose, we’ll look to the second line: "In Corners – till a Day."
  • That line is modifying where and for how long the speaker’s life stood.
  • Let’s start with the simplest one: "My Life had stood – [like] a Loaded Gun – "
  • We have the speaker’s life, which stood in the corners like a loaded gun, until one day, when "The Owner passed – identified – / And carried Me away –."
  • The use of "The Owner" adds another player to the mix.
  • We imagine the speaker’s life lurking in some shadowy corner, along a sidewalk somewhere, when "The Owner" walked by, identified the speaker’s life or was identified by the speaker’s life – it’s ambiguous – and then carried her away.
  • Initially, we had a separation between the speaker and her "Life" – she referred to it like it was outside herself.
  • Now, the speaker and her "Life" seemed to have collapsed into one: "Me." See that?
  • Her Life had stood in the corners, till the Owner passed by, but now she is being carried away. So, we make the assumption that the speaker and her life are being carried away.