Monday, March 14, 2011

"My Life had stood--a Loaded Gun" (poem 754) by Emily Dickinson

Here's my attempt at a close reading of this familiar but difficult and enigmatic poem. My text is from the standard Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, edited by Thomas H. Johnson.

My Life had stood--a Loaded Gun--
In Corners

The first stanza provides our only glimpse of the speaker's life in the past, before the present tense action of the central four stanzas and the modulation to the future in the final stanza. In a metaphor that states and initiates the overarching conceit of the poem, the speaker's life is compared to a loaded gun, a deadly phallic weapon. But the cruel energy of the weapon is trapped in potentiality. The speaker's life, loaded with potential, was stagnant, neglected, left to stand in corners. We should note the plural on 'corners' because it suggests that the gun was a powerless object moved around the house at the will of others. The speaker is a powerless domestic figure, a person commanded but never commanding. We might at this point guess that the speaker is a woman even if we knew nothing about the author's gender, and this supposition adds a provocative and unsettling note to the poem: the notion that all those quiet, dutiful daughters and wives of 19th-century America were so many loaded guns just waiting to explode. Lizzie Borden and her ax are not far away. Dickinson is also close to a very modern feminist critique of patriarchy: even this speaker, remarkably conscious of the conditions of her existence, can trope upon her life only in terms of the patriarchal ideology that has interpellated her, formed and informed her self. Her life is a loaded gun, a weapon used by males, a virginal phallus that has yet to 'shoot its load.' Even at her most radical moment, her mind remains colonized by the male imagery that is the only imagery of power her society permits.

                          --till a day
The Owner passed--identified--
And carried Me away--

The mysterious "Owner," surely a male figure, a suitor, a lover, now appears, and He changes everything. The Owner seems a psychologically familiar conflation of lover/husband/father/God, a 'lord and master,' to use a common 19th-century euphemism for a husband. The first 'owner' of the speaker's life would be her father, the next 'owner' her lover-husband, the ultimate 'owner' her Creator. The ambiguity creates at least a hint of incest to darken both the nuptial and theological interpretations, but this is surely the same hint of incest that is present in some form in much female heterosexual love, whether directed toward a Daddy-figure or an anti-Daddy. The word 'identified' is crucial here. The action of the poem begins with this act of identification. On the metaphorical level it's the owner of the gun noticing it and picking it up on his way out the door; on the erotic level, 'identified' is an intransitive verb meaning 'to be or become the same.' This one word is Dickinson's signification of sexual intercourse, the Owner 'takes' the speaker, the two become one. This interpretation is confirmed by the next line. The erotic, even orgasmic, connotations of the phrase "carried away" persist even into our time.

And now We roam in Sovereign Woods--
And now We hunt the Doe--

The marriage is now consummated on a linguistic level, as "Me" and "Owner" become "We." The owner carries the speaker away from domestic confinement into American national mythology's master symbol of freedom, the wilderness of the American frontier. The woods are "sovereign," denoting both 'kingly, regal,' a patriarchal space, and 'unlimited in extent,' the vast western woodlands in which the Puritans saw a howling wilderness and where later generations found the landscape of American pastoral. We are now in the realm of the frontier narratives studied at length by Richard Slotkin, the land of regeneration through violence. And it is also, we should add, a deeply patriarchal realm. They are killing does, not stags. The speaker in marriage conspires with the owner to destroy female intruders in a man's world.

And every time I speak for Him--
The Mountains straight reply--

And do I smile, such cordial light
Upon the Valley glow--

The couple live their violent life in pastoral harmony with nature. The mountains echo the report of the deadly rifle, a sound figured as the narrator 'speaking for' the Owner. This topsy-turvy usurpation of male privilege--a woman speaking for a man instead of the usual vice-versa--is the first sign that the couple's frontier adventure is empowering the woman, that she's experiencing a distinctly female version of violent regeneration--also a male privilege in American myth. What might initially seem a brighter side of this empowerment is depicted in the 'smile' image, a complex and compressed conflation of face, sun, and firing gun barrel. But the word 'cordial,' from the Latin root meaning 'heart,' throws a violent bloody light over this glowing valley. This smile is not an insipid 'happy face.' It's the smile of a human being become as violent as nature. It's a smile that earns Dickinson the title Camille Paglia awards her in the last and best chapter of Sexual Personae: Amherst's Madame de Sade.

It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let its pleasure through--

The speaker's Sadistic empowerment in nature now issues in an image that answers the phallic gun of patriarchy that is the poem's controlling conceit. A Vesuvian face is, literally, a face through which emotions suddenly burst forth, but more important than this meaning is the other denotation which the speaker's emotion causes to burst through the very phrase 'Vesuvian face,' an image of a volcano in eruption, the face of a mountain exploding and bursting with hot, bubbling liquid. The image is vulval, vaginal, an anti-phallic symbol that would melt any male 'gun' tossed into it (as vaginas tend to do). This is the pleasure the face lets through, a triumphant and violent image of sexual power diametrically opposed to the imagery the speaker borrows from patriarchy.

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--

This stanza steps back a bit from the extremity of the preceding lines. The 'good day' of regeneration through violence is done, and patriarchy attempts to reassert itself. Man is 'Master' now, but the woman is no longer an unproblematic slave. Now she's a Hegelian slave aware of the dialectical relationship in which she plays a role. She protects the man, and to that extent she has a form of power over him, power that he has granted her, just as she grants him power through her act of self-subordination. The 'deep pillow' image, a Picasso-ish conflation of bosom, buttocks and vagina (three places in which a penis can deeply pillow), transfers the Master/Slave dialectic to an erotic plane where the couple 'share' each others' bodies in the night.

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

We are still in the night, the speaker is guarding the man, holding in her hands the deadly gun of her life. We should note that Dickinson artfully blurs the line between tenor and vehicle in the poem's organizing metaphor. In the poem's first line, the gun is established as the vehicle and 'my life' as the tenor; in subsequent verses, the narrator is not the woman, but the-woman-as-gun, the woman who, through the man's mediation, has become the gun. The marriage of man and woman between the first two stanzas is also the union of tenor and vehicle. We can 'see' the speaker as a woman, as a gun, or as a woman with a gun; the 'proper' visualization would probably be a superimposition of the three. The most curious thing about this stanza is the odd final image of that "emphatic Thumb." Placed in parallel with the firing gun barrel's 'yellow eye,' the capitalized 'Thumb' is an image that gigantizes the speaker by miniaturizing the man's 'foes.' They are tiny bugs to be smashed under a thumb. She's a goddess who will treat his enemies the way Gloucester's 'wanton boys' treat flies. (Read King Lear, if you don't get my allusion.) She could keep Mick Jagger under her 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--

This is the most difficult stanza of the poem, so I'll begin interpretation with an attempt at vulgar paraphrase: It is possible that I will outlive him / But he must outlive me / For I have the power to kill him / And only he has the power to kill me. This is what Dickinsonian marriage comes down to, in the end, at the shitty end of life: the one who granted us life is the one who must take it away. A theological reading is possible, but any "The Lord Giveth..." sentimentality is undermined by the ice-cold cruelty of Dickinson's tone. The man must live longer than the woman because he must kill her. This final mercy killing is the love-death that brings to synthesis the poem's themes of eros and thanatos, love and violence. We can read it otherwise, in many other ways, but we should beware of any interpretation that lessens the violence of the ending, for that violence is true to the rest of the poem. Throughout the poem, Dickinson grants us a deeply disturbing vision of love and cruelty, a vision equalled in English only by Blake's "The Mental Traveller."

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