Reloading That Gun: Reading an Old Poem As if It Matters
It is tempting, if you read Emily Dickinson, and especially if you write about her or try to teach her poems in classes, to cheat; that is, to ignore the ways in which she is not like you, not, for instance, comfortably non-religious, not feminist in the yes-ofcourse way middle-aged academics of certain political persuasions all tend to be, not bored with an old poet’s overly familiar obsessions and straining to say something new. Then again, it can be tempting to explain away as “cultural” (that is, to be expected of the daughter of small-town patricians in nineteenth-century New England) her insistence on a personal God (she complains bitterly, in fact, that He is not personal enough), her disengagement with gender issues (even though many of the poems themselves are clearly and passionately identified as the work of a woman), and her obsession with the possibility of (or the possibility of imagining) life after death. It isn’t really any more satisfactory to explain her differences from us by confining her to her own time than it is to pretend they don’t exist. Clearly, not only the poems but the mind that created them were fiercely original, and she used the time and circumstances where she found herself in unpredictable rather than conventional ways. More viscerally, to use her own favorite metaphor for a successful poem, because her poems “breathe,” readers who become devoted to these poems have to account for the way they continue to startle and move us, not as historical documents about other lives, but as accounts of something integral to our own lives that needs to be articulated and understood right now.
Her best poems don’t feel like familiar territory, even after you’ve read them many times over, or memorized them, or taught them every semester for years, but they do feel intimate, as if we find ourselves backed into strange deeply interior spaces that are indisputably our own. They are also serious and philosophically ambitious. It simply doesn’t do to attribute passages that seem uncharacteristically naive to an attack of conventionality, nor does it seem honest to stretch a puzzling poem until it complies with our own academic interests. All of which leads me to “that poem,” the one I have been avoiding for years, “My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun -.” Most of the ingenious readings I have read of the poem claiming it for feminist rage, for a theory of poetry or language (with or without feminist rage) or, more common lately, for sheer indeterminacy1 have seemed to miss something in both the style and substance of the poem that does not quite conform to the critical obsessions of turn-of-themillennium critics. On the other hand, the reading that I have been developing seems to me uncomfortably stuck in the antebellum United States, a place that has never seemed big enough to contain Dickinson’s strangeness. My solution has been to allow Dickinson her obsession with those musty old constructs God and immortality, but to account for the ways in which, using conventional nineteenth-century themes, she gets to me where I live, in a lackadaisically post-Christian corner of the twenty-first century. It occurs to me, when I read the poem this way, that the extraordinary engagement with metaphysical questions that took hold in the pre-Civil War United States and the fact that the language of that engagement is literary language have everything to do with why I continue to read Dickinson’s poems as if they matter now and to me.
My dissatisfaction with the many articles I’ve read on “My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun -” usually comes to a head in the reading of the last stanza, where the reader is most directly invited into the poem. Its placement and phrasing give it the importance of a punch line, but most published readings seem unsure what to do with it. The stanza is written like the formulaic examples of wit and allusion in old-fashioned riddle books. (It is reminiscent of the coy riddle that Jane Austen’s Emma Woodhouse solves with the word “Courtship.”) Like those, it expects us to venture a guess, here to the questions, Who or what is the speaker? Who or what is “He,” who is earlier in the poem referred to as “the Owner” and “my Master”?
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
I am sure that somewhere at least one early reading of this poem provides the most obvious solution for a speaker as steeped in Christian text and iconography as Dickinson: The speaker is Death personified, and “He” is the second person in the Christian trinity, God the Son, humanity’s advocate, who overcomes death for believers. In John Donne’s words, “And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die,” or, in First Corinthians, “The enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” The whole exercise is pedantic in a dusty fashion that deserves to be outdated; it seems clumsily grotesque-tacky, actually-for death to challenge us in this self-consciously literary way.
Nevertheless, I believe it is important to the spirit of the poem that death-not language as the slayer of the phenomenal world, not a metaphor for human emotion, or an exaggeration of murderous intent, but the physical death of sentient beings-is the central presence in the poem, as necessary to the queasy terror it generates as it is to the poem’s coherence. Just as necessary to the poem is the presence of an utterly inhuman, inhumane, seductive, and powerful controlling force-God, within the poem, but, by extension, whatever belief or attitude offers us exemption from our animal nature and from the slippery common ground of human mortality. I am proposing, then, reading “My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun -” as a manifesto for accepting our necessary limitations. Against the speaker and the narrative, the poem itself prepares the reader to resist the temptations of transcendence and to take up willingly a position within the living, mortal world.
My Life had – a Loaded Gun –
In Corners – till a Day
The Owner passed – identified –
And carried Me away –
And now We roam in Sovereign Woods –
And now We hunt the Doe –
And every time I speak for Him
The Mountains straight reply
And do I smile, such cordial light
Upon the Valley glow
It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let it’s pleasure through
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
To foe of His – I’m deadly foe
None stir the second time
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye
Or an emphatic 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
If the Loaded Gun is simply Death, the power of death unleashed in the world, the first two lines of the poem solve half of the last stanza’s riddle. In rereading the poem, it is not the “Gun” or its murderous power that is the point, but “Loaded”; half the story is in the Gun’s eternally pre-existent state of readiness. The other word crucial to the argument in the first stanza is “identified.” The Gun remains dangerous but quiet until the Owner is named, and only after that condition is fulfilled, does the Owner take possession. If God is identified as the “Owner” of the power and art2 of killing, what time is prior to that identification, and who does the identifying? The Genesis narrative does, of course, name a moment when death is unleashed on earth; it is the beginning of fully human consciousness precipitated by the Fall, the moment when God tells Adam “for dust thou art, and unto dust thou shalt return,” and tells the angels “Behold the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil.” Because mortality (which here presupposes the fore-knowledge of death) and morality (figured forth as self-consciousness and shame) all emerge from Eve’s choice to become human, we are implicated in our own fate and the fate of all living things from the start; that is, from the moment when Adam first speaks to God and acknowledges that he is in the hands of something alien, powerful, and identifiable-something both familiar and Other by definition. That is the narrative, but there is also a counter-narrative move in the first line: The Gun was loaded.
The Gun, recognizing in God its rightful master, both begins and undoes the narrative. In Milton’s revision of Genesis, Death is the offspring of Sin and Satan, spawned in Hell. Neither Hell nor Satan is necessary in Dickinson’s “Sovereign Woods”; death has always been passive but prepared, so that the beginning of the story, predestined, is something of a false beginning, just as the triumph over death that the last stanza invokes is selective and incomplete. The hunted Doe, a representative for the whole of sentient animal life, has nothing to do with identification, the linguistic event that began the Gun’s reign of terror, or with the wisp of hope that might end it. Like the Doe, the infidel, the unbeliever, and the conscientious soul who resists the Master’s selective salvation are all subject to death. In fact, the Gun can’t die until it has dispatched all such “foes”; that is its most delightful and necessary function. It is not the person of the Master that death guards, but the need for His mercy and salvation-from death. The narrative of salvation is circular, and the narrative structure of the poem, ending in the possibility that death will die, fails to cover over the Master’s and the Gun’s shared, sick compulsion, which will require endless replays of annihilation.
Within the poem, though, there is a narrative movement. It occurs within the psyche of the Gun who narrates the poem. This movement from something like innocence to a helpless depravity is so complete that the only hope left is self-destruction. The Gun’s self-loathing has been the focus of some of the most ethically important readings of the poem, but most of them have assumed that the Gun is somehow human. And there is a risk that something will be lost in emotional intensity when the Gun figure is read as allegorical; the reader should feel cheated if the basis of this poem is not a real moral failing that touches human beings but an allegorical figure equipped with scary emotions. If the moral question is one of agency, at first glance the problem seems too easy. Surely the Master is behind all of this. But the Gun seems consciously complicit, if compulsive. And the fury in the poem feels so focused. Something seems expected of us. The difficulty is anticipated in an elaborately witty letter that twentyyear-old Emily Dickinson wrote to a young uncle. In it she protests an inability to lay blame in a morally coherent way:
It would do to go with a story I read-one man pointed a loaded gun at a man-and shot him so that he died-and the people threw the owner of the gun into prison-and afterwards hung him for murder. Only another victim to the misunderstanding of society-such things should not be permitted-it certainly is as much as one’s neck is worth to live in so stupid a world.
The “loaded gun” letter suggests a mockery of the whole notion of agency. It is unnerving because we seem to have entered a world where the potential for violence is indistinguishable from violence itself; it is not the killer’s ruthlessness that threatens but our own inability to locate the sources of power or harm. Likewise, the creepiness of the poem lies not so much in the control the Owner has over the Gun as in the unnatural merging of the two wills-we feel it to be unnatural; it becomes, in fact, eerily sexual-which adds to the feeling that there is no escape from this sequence of events.
The first two stanzas establish the Owner’s power, first in the casual way he claims his weapon in passing, and then in the setting: We know whose woods these are both by definition and by the laws of nature, which require and reward death. By the third stanza, though, the Gun has turned into an obsequious version of Frankenstein’s monster. Increasingly slavish, it is also increasingly out of control. Not only does the Gun seek its own grisly form of job approval ratings (that Vesuvian grin), but, in guarding the Master’s head, it also corrupts the Master’s mission of mercy, revealing that there would be no need for mercy if the Owner had not picked up that gun. The last stanzas of the poem recall all the incipient violence woven into the myth of the Prince of Peace, who is endlessly dying on the cross and who needs not only his own death but universal death and the fear of death if he is to deliver us. So the poem ends at an impasse. Death itself is so sated with killing that it longs to taste its own medicine. And the Master needs death to justify his function. They are so deeply cojoined that both blame and new actions become impossible.
For the reader, though, there is, if not a moral imperative, at least a defined moral position. Clearly there is something wrong -something that must be deplored-within this inescapable cycle. The poem asks for resistance, although it is not immediately clear what we are to resist or how. At least it seems necessary to resist the ceding of empathy that the poem depicts. The hope of personal immortality encourages estrangement from the animal life we inhabit and a retreat from the common ground we share with other mortal beings. Any promise of personal transcendence depends on our ability to hold ourselves apartwhether the agent is the Son of Man bringing salvation; Kant’s “Reason” or Emerson’s Oversoul ushering in the Romantic sublime; or postmodernism announcing the death of the personal subject. Emerson describes “a low sense of the sublime” as anything that brings about in the spectator the sense that “whilst the world is spectacle, something in himself is stable.” Emerson’s “something in himself is far less exclusionary than the Christian myth it replaces; it is by definition something accessible within each human psyche. Nevertheless, finding that something requires at least the temporary loss and the ultimate devaluing of persons, personalities, non-human life, and the beloved given world that Dickinson spent her poetic life proleptically mourning.
The reader’s role in the poem, then, would seem to be simply to deplore. If we keep the poem within its Christian context, it economically unjustifies the ways of God to man. There is an alternative context for the poem, but it is no more optimistic. This is, for two stanzas, a nature poem. The Woods, the Mountains, the Valley, the Doe all remind us that the problems of suffering, cruelty, and death remain even if we throw out the Christian solution as cruel and unconvincing. And the betrayal is just as great; Mother Earth is closer and more comforting than God the Father and Son put together, but, as Thoreau (cheerfully) put it, “our great-grandmother” has both survived all of her progeny, and “fed her health with their decaying fatness,” or, more extravagantly,
. . . Nature is so rife with life that myriads can be afforded to prey on one another; that tender organizations can be so serenely squashed out of existence like pulp, -tadpoles which herons gobble up and toads run over in the road; and that it has sometimes rained flesh and blood!
The grotesque richness of Thoreau’s examples undermines the ease of his solution; he simply declares that “The impression made on a wise man is that of universal innocence.” Clearly, even if the wisdom that finds innocence in “natural” brutality is real wisdom after all, such wisdom should not be too easy to come by. And clearly Dickinson’s habit of invoking an indifferent or complicit God is her way of adding to the difficulty, by making the general brutality of earthly life personal, by reminding us that although we have imagined God as operating on an alternative principle, even that alternative cannot escape responsibility. There is, though, more to do with the poem, with the reading of the poem I am suggesting, than nodding in futile agreement to protests against the cruelty of nature or the injustice or futility of God.
In its first stanza, “My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun -” asks one of philosophy’s basic questions, the question of fate versus free will. The poem implies a radically skeptical position towards the Christian ideas that either freely chosen moral conduct or freely chosen faith can save us. Once our eyes are opened after the Fall, either we are implicated in all judgments about who will finally be chosen to evade its punishment (that is, we assume that such judgments can be justified by an idea of morality to which we can accede) or, like the Calvinists, we cede our right to judge and thereby remove immortality as a motive to morality. Stanley Cavell maintains,
But immortality is not necessary for the soul’s satisfaction. What is necessary is its own coherence, its ability to judge a world in which evil is successful and the good are doomed; and in particular its knowledge that while injustice may flourish, it cannot rest content.3
From our human perspective, which is all that we have, the promise of a selective reprieve from death is either morally untenable (what basis would we ourselves use for a selection with eternal implications?) or it is utterly beyond us, mysterious, random, and nearly whimsical. Not only does the poem question the morality of either possibility, it questions God’s free will. Once He claims death as His instrument and sets it to work in the world, He has lost the option to be truly merciful in any way that would make sense to the human eyes that have been trained on Him since the Fall.
From a secular point of view, the argument becomes one of exceptionalism. Although secular readers may not be tempted by the biblical vision of personal immortality, each of us must acknowledge the subjective difference with which we inevitably regard ourselves. Emerson’s notion that “We believe in ourselves as we do not believe in others” is liberating, terrifying, and true. The quote comes from the essay “Experience,” the essay where Emerson’s self-reliance curdles into isolation. If each of us imitates God (or, rather, we have made a god who imitates us) in our perceptive power, we also, like the Master in Dickinson’s poem, are limited by our unique vantage points and by the circumstances we accede to in order to act in the world. Dickinson is always less interested in theology than in the human imagination. It is not God and the afterlife she questions so much as the God and afterlife that it is possible for us to imagine.
“My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun -” is deeply skeptical. It does not just refute the idea of a beneficent God who kills with one hand and saves a select few from his own devastation with the other; it also tempts the reader to either despair or amorality. The Gun’s pleasure in killing for food and to protect and define a given order is a pleasure certainly “natural” to all, whenever we allow ourselves to satisfy our own hearty and manifold appetites. Such pleasure stubbornly persists even when we acknowledge those whose interests are inevitably sacrificed to our satisfaction. Who hasn’t taken solace in some form of greediness, self-assertion, or just plain carelessness? The wooded setting and the “good day” of hunting in the open air naturalize the brutality and remind us of the charms of unselfconscious subjectivity. The smile on the “Vesuvian face” alerts us that something here is frightening and wrong, but it also suggests that something is magical, inevitable, as old as the hills and older. We seem to be left with the options of either ruthless solitude, like the Gun’s, or trying to squelch our own desires, even our own identities. Or we could take the option the Gun doesn’t have-the “art” to die, or at least to lose ourselves temporarily in an aesthetic experience that releases us from self-regard but does not require or allow exemption from the ordinary lives where we find ourselves.
In “A Word made Flesh,” Dickinson offers an antidote to despair over human nature that arises from human nature, a consolation that is within our province to offset the alienating promise of Christian salvation.
A Word made Flesh is seldom
And tremblingly partook
Nor then perhaps reported
But have I not mistook
Each one of us has tasted
With ecstasies of stealth
The very food debated
To our specific strength –
A Word that breathes distinctly
Has not the power to die
Cohesive as the Spirit
It may expire if He
“Made Flesh and dwelt among us”
Could condescension be
Like this consent of Language
This loved Philology
The poem is about receptive language-the words we hear or read. A word is made flesh when we feel it live. Unlike the bread and wine offered in church, the food supplied by the living word caters to our individual natures. A slightly guilty pleasure (we are ingesting something so palpably alive), it is an intensely private feast and a profoundly democratic one.
The second and third stanzas consider the death of language, the conditions that would entitle or sentence us to silence. If He-God-kept His promise to “condescend,” that is, to reveal Himself directly to our common apprehension, words would be supplanted, and the mystical silence of God could reign. But instead of looking forward to that unimaginable state, Dickinson writes a hymn to the present power of utterly human language. It inspires in her the kind of loving gratitude that devout Christians reserve for God the Son, the God who once “dwelt among us.” For writers and impassioned readers, the power to bring words to life on the page is a kind of miracle, a “consent” granted, a privilege never quite earned. Nevertheless, unpredictable, mutable, and prone to accident as it is, this incarnation is intimately our own; it lives not just among us but within, in the folds of our brains, the joints of our fingers, the hinges of our tongues.
When I read the two poems together, they both seem to be about the temptations of a very human desire to transcend not only mortality but the contingencies and limitations of human life. The speaker of “My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun -” reminds us of the ethical implications of both transcendence and full, unreflective participation in the rich, brutal, hopeless life we have been given. The speaker of “A word made Flesh” understands the yearning for something that will silence all of our human doubt and limitation but finds herself loving instead the makeshift transcendence of reading.
But that is not to say that for Dickinson language is either a self-enclosed or an all-encompassing system. Louise Glück writes, “Dickinson speaks of the crucial, not the interesting.”4 And that is it, exactly. That which is crucial speaks to inarticulate life-life off the page. This is not to diminish Dickinson’s visceral response to language, but, for her, language-whether it is the explosive power of poetry or the potentially lethal or life-giving power of a letter between friends-begins and ends in the material reality of human lives. The difference between the intimacies of a God made flesh and the language that literature speaks is that literature consents to live where we find ourselves-within lives limited and defined by time, circumstance, and the material world. The immortality of literary texts depends on those constraints; their continued coherence depends on not just the continuation of literary and linguistic conventions but the common ground we share with generations of creatures like ourselves.
It is not that the presence of Big Subjects like God and Death makes the poems important; it is that Dickinson engaged big subjects in a way that is distinctly literary. The poems are not personal, but they are insistently subjective and, for all their abstractions, deeply rooted in the imagery of sensual life and the aural and visual possibilities-the materiality-of language. Dickinson’s poetry, a culmination of American Romanticism, was written at a moment when great American thinkers were doing their thinking in poems, fiction, or poetic prose. There is a profound connection between the nature of the thinking they did and the literary language in which they wrote. Theirs is a slippery time for dogmas. The American Romantics hover between the obscure certainties of theology and the often reductive certainties that twentieth-century thought, dominated by psychology and social sciences, will bring. Theirs is a time for negative capability to flourish and for imagery, drama, metaphor, and colloquialism-the language of ordinary sensual life-to become the language of philosophy.
Literary writing and literary reading suffer today from a fundamental distrust of what has been, at least since the Romantic era, the characteristically literary perspective, a perspective that is subjective but not solely dependent upon the personal psychology of the writer and that allows us to examine not an actual, particular self but selfhood, the constraints and possibilities inherent in any single, given life. The distrust comes, justifiably enough, with that word “any” and with the universal pretensions that Romanticism encouraged. In order to avoid those pretensions, those who write about literature today most often read literary texts in sociological or psychological terms, and those who write poetry or literary prose often turn either to confession or, alternatively, abstraction, enacting endlessly language’s inability to get at anything that isn’t language. But “we”-not everyone alive right now and certainly not everyone who has ever been alive, but a changing cast of the living and the dead-do sometimes find ourselves on common ground, and that ground is not simply a linguistic construct. Reading, which not only requires but creates solitude, takes us to the edge of inarticulate solitary experience in the company of otherswriters and other readers. The fact that language, and especially the language we read, may also color or create our experience does not diminish the miracle of that connection. If we don’t concede that our lives are both adamantly material and permeable by what we say about them, we deny the real, incarnate power of the language that touches most closely the lives all of us actually live.
That we keep harping on both language’s limitations and its insular power seems a kind of idolatry-a constantly-disappointed expectation that literary language should or will have not just less or more but different power than it has. But words that take on a life of their own depend on our common and commonly acknowledged limitations, our inability to be either utterly original or truly universal, to create a new thing or to articulate something completely true. It seems important-crucial-to continue to read and write words with designs on our most deeply felt realities, realizing that their power depends on our capacity to take them in and breathe them out again, contaminated and alive.
Copyright Hudson Review Winter 2005
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