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Emily Dickinson uses the power of metaphor and symbolism in her poem “My Life had stood-” to express the way she felt about herself as a poet in a time when women were allowed far less independent thought and freedom of expression; she gives her readers a painfully honest confession of the sacrifices she believed she had to make to be the artist she was. The structure, word choice, and symbolism in the poem work elegantly to translate her internal conflict to paper and to speak to her readers of how she sacrificed her identity as a woman in order to effectively unleash the creativity within her. The artistic authority denied her by society, because she was a woman, is somehow granted to her in the act of submitting to her inner male, her “owner” and “master”.
The poem consists of six quatrains and follows a rhythmic pattern quite common in her writing. The first and last stanzas are the only ones that have a solid rhyming pattern, ABCB, and the third and fourth contain slant rhymes, also ABCB. She is precise in making her points and does not use anymore words than she feels necessary; she is on-target and to the point, yet powerful and effective in her execution. She speaks to the reader directly; in a concise and matter-of-fact manner she gives the reader an account of how her life as a “loaded gun” had “sat in corners”, until one day her master “identified- and carried [her] away.” The rest of the poem describes different ways her life found meaning through the hands of this “master”. The last stanza, rather than concluding the poem, leaves the reader uncertain as to the nature of her relationship with the “master”.
The verb tenses vary somewhat throughout the poem. The first stanza takes place in the past, using the past perfect verb “had stood” to imply that the condition that was real for her then is no longer real. The rest of the poem carries on mostly in the active present tense. She speaks of her current reality, of what is actively happening in her world at that moment. She opens the last stanza in the indefinite future tense, giving the reader a sense of unknown regarding what lies ahead, and then she closes the poem with the last two lines in the present tense, their meaning hanging on the uncertainty set up in the preceding two lines. Emily guides the reader, briefly, through her past, spends most of the poem concerned with the present, and closes the poem with an explanation of what she hopes will happen, what she thinks “must” happen, when the time comes for she and her “master” to die.
Emily uses nature and a theme of hunting to express her ideas. Her life is a “loaded gun”, her owner is a hunter. The fact that she chose nature as the realm within which to express these ideas is quite typical of her writing, and it serves an important purpose. Nature, “sovereign”, represents a place where a man is in control of his life. These images evoke the atypical American pioneer spirit, the freedom to live independently within one’s surroundings, something she’d not known in her “corners”. The reader also senses her energetic rage through the words she uses. They “hunt the doe”, causing the mountains to ring with the sound of bullets. Her smile fires down “cordial light” upon the valley, as if a “Vesuvian face had let its pleasure through”. The power and force of their activity within nature is like an erupting volcano, a powerful release of pent up energy.
Regarding the symbolism in the poem, there is much to be said; the entire poem is a metaphor. The poem begins with Emily speaking of her life as a loaded gun, in corners; “not just a corner, the first lines of the poem tell us, but corners, as though wherever she stood was thereby a constricted place.” (Gelpi) Carl Jung put forth that every human possesses the intrinsic qualities of both genders; he calls them the anima (feminine) and animus (masculine). One interpretation of this poem is that Emily gives full control of her anima to her animus, in order for the artistic power of the anima to be fully released. It is the animus, the “master”, who gives her identity, who gives her the hands to do the work she desperately desires to do.
Furthermore, the fact they are hunting doe, female deer, should not be overlooked. The words “doe” and “foe” are connected in that they rhyme. It is clear that the target in the poem is fundamentally feminine. It is as if Emily is attacking womanhood, killing it, and finding purpose in doing so. She unapologetically, almost proudly, refuses to acquiesce to society’s expectations of her as a woman, to rest her head in the “eider duck’s deep pillow”, next to her husband, as it were, to fulfill the duties of wife and mother.
The last stanza presents somewhat of a mystery. Why must he live longer than she? By making this connection with death, she brings an element of immortality to the poem. Her art will live on eternally, though her temporal role as an artist may end; her poems’ powerful blows will be felt far past her time on Earth. She also suggests that a crucial dependency exists between her and him: if it were not for him, through whom her art is birthed into space and time, the art would not be, and would therefore not be able to exist into eternity. So we see that in the death of her womanhood, and consequently in her submission to the “master”, her art is born, which will live on past the death of that which brought the art into existence. Beautifully, her death to womanhood has done great service in bringing equality to women after her.
Emily Dickinson may have struggled with her identity as a woman, however, the previous interpretations are debatable, as there is a tone of ambivalence in her writing, and appropriately so. Adrienne Rich says of this poem, “poetry is too much rooted in the unconscious; it presses too close against the barriers of repression; and the nineteenth-century woman had much to repress.” (Rich)
Gelpi, Albert. On 754 (My Life had stood a loaded gun). Modern American Poetry. University of Illinois. 14 Sep. 2013.http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/a_f/dickenson/754.htm
Rich, Adrienne. On 754 (My Life had stood a loaded gun). Modern American Poetry. University of Illinois. 14 Sep. 2013.http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/a_f/dickenson/754.htm
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