Albert Gelpi: On 754 ("My Life had stood--a Loaded Gun--")

Despite the narrative manner, it is no more peopled than the rest of Dickinson's poems, which almost never have more than two figures: the speaker and another, often an anonymous male figure suggestive of a lover or of God or of both. So here: I and "My Master," the "Owner" of my life. Biographers have tried to sift the evidence to identify the "man" in the central drama of the poetry. Three draft-"letters" from the late 1850s and early 1860s, confessing in overwrought language her passionate love for the "Master" and her pain at his rejection, might seem to corroborate the factual basis for the relationship examined in this poem, probably written in 1863. However, as I have argued elsewhere, the fact that biographers have been led to different candidates, with the fragmentary evidence pointing in several directions inconclusively, has deepened my conviction that "he" is not a real human being whom Dickinson knew and loved and lost or renounced, but a psychological presence or factor in her inner life. Nor does the identification of "him" with Jesus or with God satisfactorily explain many of the poems, including the poem under discussion here. I have come, therefore, to see "him" as an image symbolic of certain aspects of her own personality, qualities and needs and potentialities which have been identified culturally and psychologically with the masculine, and which she consequently perceived and experienced as masculine.

Carl Jung called this "masculine" aspect of the woman's psyche her "animus," corresponding to the postulation of an "anima" as the "feminine" aspect of the man's psyche. The anima or animus, first felt as the disturbing presence of the "other" in one’s self, thus holds the key to fulfillment and can enable the man or the woman to suffer through the initial crisis of alienation and conflict to assimilate the "other" into an integrated identity. In the struggle toward wholeness the animus and the anima come to mediate the whole range of experience for the woman and the man: her and his connection with nature and sexuality on the one hand and with spirit on the other. No wonder that the animus and the anima appear in dreams, myths, fantasies, and works of art as figures at once human and divine, as lover and god. Such a presence is Emily Dickinson's Master and Owner in the poem.

However, for women in a society like ours which enforces the subjection of women in certain assigned roles, the process of growth and integration becomes especially fraught with painful risks and traps and ambivalences. Nevertheless, here, as in many poems, Dickinson sees the chance for fulfillment in her relationship to the animus figure, indeed in her identification with him. Till he came, her life had known only inertia, standing neglected in tight places, caught at the right angles of walls: not just a corner, the first lines of the poem tell us, but corners, as though wherever she stood was thereby a constricted place. But all the time she knew that she was something other and more. Paradoxically, she attained her prerogatives through submission to the internalized masculine principle. In the words of the poem, the release of her power depended on her being "carried away"--rapt, "raped"--by her Owner and Master. Moreover, by further turns of the paradox, a surrender of womanhood transformed her into a phallic weapon, and in return his recognition and adoption "identified" her.

Now we can begin to see why the serious fantasy of this poem makes her animus a hunter and woodsman. With instinctive rightness Dickinson's imagination grasps her situation in terms of the major myth of the American experience. The pioneer on the frontier is the version of the universal hero myth indigenous to our specific historical circumstances, and it remains today, even in our industrial society, the mythic mainstay of American individualism. The pioneer claims his manhood by measuring himself against the unfathomed, unfathomable immensity of his elemental world, whose "otherness" he experiences at times as the inhuman, at times as the feminine, at times as the divine--most often as all three at once. His link with landscape, therefore, is a passage into the unknown in his own psyche, the mystery of his unconscious. For the man the anima is the essential point of connection with woman and with deity.

But all too easily, sometimes all too unwittingly, connection--which should move to union--can gradually fall into competition, then contention and conflict. The man who reaches out to Nature to engage his basic physical and spiritual needs finds himself reaching out with the hands of the predator to possess and subdue, to make Nature serve his own ends. From the point of view of Nature, then, or of woman or of the values of the feminine principle the pioneer myth can assume a devastating and tragic significance, as our history has repeatedly demonstrated. Forsaking the institutional structures of patriarchal culture, the woodsman goes out alone, or almost alone, to test whether his mind and will are capable of outwitting the lures and wiles of Nature, her dark children and wild creatures. If he can vanquish her--Mother Nature, Virgin Land--then he can assume or resume his place in society and as boon exact his share of the spoils of Nature and the service of those, including women and the dark-skinned peoples, beneath him in the established order.

In psychosexual terms, therefore, the pioneer's struggle against the wilderness can be seen, from the viewpoint, to enact the subjugation of the feminine principle, whose dark mysteries are essential to the realization of personal and social identity but for that reason threaten masculine prerogatives in a patriarchal ordering of individual and social life. The hero fights to establish his ego-identity and assure the linear transmission of the culture which sustains his ego-identity, and he does so by maintaining himself against the encroachment of the Great Mother. Her rhythm is the round of Nature, and her sovereignty is destructive to the independent individual because the continuity of the round requires that she devour her children and absorb their lives and consciousness back into her teeming womb, season after season, generation after generation. So the pioneer who may first have ventured into the woods to discover the otherness which is the clue to identity may in the end find himself maneuvering against the feminine powers, weapon in hand, with mind and will as his ultimate weapons for self-preservation. No longer seeker or lover, he advances as the aggressor, murderer, rapist.

As we have seen, in this poem Emily Dickinson accedes to the "rape," because she longs for the inversion of sexual roles which, from the male point of view, allows a hunter or a soldier to call his phallic weapon by a girl's name and speak of it, even to it, as a woman. Already by the second stanza "I" and "he" have become "We": "And now We roam in Sovreign Woods-- / And now We hunt the Doe--," the rhythm and repetition underscoring the momentous change of identity. However, since roaming "in Sovreign Woods--," or, as the variant has it, roaming "the--Sovreign Woods--" is a contest of survival, it issues in bloodshed. "To foe of His--I'm deadly foe," she boasts later, and here their first venture involves hunting the doe. It is important that the female of the deer is specified, for Dickinson's identification of herself with the archetype of the hero in the figure of the woodsman seems to her to necessitate a sacrifice of her womanhood, explicitly the range of personality and experience as sexual and maternal woman. In just a few lines she has converted her "rape" by the man into a hunting-down of Mother Nature's creatures by manly comrades--Natty Bumppo and Chingachgook in The Last of the Mohicans, Natty Bumppo and Hurry Harry in The Deerslayer.

[. . . .]

In the psychological context of this archetypal struggle Emily Dickinson joins in the killing of the doe without a murmur of pity or regret; she wants the independence of will and the power of mind which her allegiance with the woodsman makes possible. Specifically, engagement with the animus unlocks her artistic creativity; through his inspiration and mastery she becomes a poet. The variant for "power" in the last line is "art," and the irresistible force of the rifle's muzzle-flash and of the bullet are rendered metaphorically in terms of the artist's physiognomy: his blazing countenance ("Vesuvian face"), his vision ("Yellow Eye"), his shaping hand ("emphatic Thimb"), his responsive heart ("cordial light"). So it is that when the hunter fires the rifle, "I speak for Him--." Without his initiating pressure on the trigger, there would be no incandescence; but without her as seer and craftsman there would be no art. From their conjunction issues the poem's voice, reverberant enough to make silent nature echo with her words.

In Hebrew the word "prophet" means to "speak for." The prophet translates the wordless meanings of the god into human language. Whitman defined the prophetic function of the poet in precisely these terms: "it means one whose mind bubbles up and pours forth as a fountain from inner, divine spontaneities revealing God.... The great matter is to reveal and outpour the God-like suggestions pressing for birth in the soul."' Just as in the male poetic tradition such divine inspiration is characteristically experienced as mediated through the anima and imaged as the poet's muse, so in this poem the animus figure functions as Dickinson's masculine muse. Where Whitman experiences inspiration as the gushing flux of the Great Mother, Dickinson experiences it as the Olympian fire: the gun-blast and Vesuvius. In several poems Dickinson depicts herself as a smoldering volcano, the god's fire flaring in the bosom of the female landscape. In her first conversation with the critic Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Dickinson remarked: "If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. Is there any other way."

But why is the creative faculty also destructive, Eros inseparable from Thanatos? To begin with, for a woman like Dickinson, choosing to be an artist could seem to require denying essential aspects of herself and relinquishing experience as lover, wife, and mother. From other poems we know Dickinson's painfully, sometimes excruciatingly divided attitude toward her womanhood, but here under the spell of the animus muse she does not waver in the sacrifice. Having spilled the doe's blood during the day's hunt, she stations herself for the night ("Our good Day done--") as stiff, soldierly guard at "My Master's Head," scorning to enter the Master's bed and sink softly into "the Eider-Duck's/ Deep Pillow." Her rejection of the conventional sexual and domestic role expected of women is further underscored by the fact that the variant for "Deep" is "low" ("the Eider-Duck's /Low Pillow") and by the fact that the eider-duck is known not merely for the quality of her down but for lining her nest by plucking the feathers from her own breast. No such "female masochism" for this doeslayer; she is "foe" to "foe of His," the rhyme with "doe" effecting the grim inversion.

Moreover, compounding the woman's alternatives, which exact part of herself no matter how she chooses, stands the essential paradox of art: that the artist kills experience into art, for temporal experience can only escape death by dying into the "immortality" of artistic form. . . .

Both the poet's relation to her muse and the living death of the artwork lead into the runic riddle of the last quatrain. It is actually a double riddle, each two lines long connected by the conjunction "for" and by the rhyme:

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--

In the first rune, why is it that she may live longer than he but he must live longer than she? The poet lives on past the moment in which she is a vessel or instrument in the hands of the creative animus for two reasons--first, because her temporal life resumes when she is returned to one of life's corners, a waiting but loaded gun again, but also because on another level she surpasses momentary possession by the animus in the poem she has created under his inspiration. At the same time, he must transcend her temporal life and even its artifacts because, as the archetypal source of inspiration, the animus is, relative to the individual, transpersonal and so in a sense "immortal."

The second rune extends the paradox of the poet's mortality and survival. The lines begin to unravel and reveal themselves if we read the phrase "Without--the power to die" not as "lacking the power to die" but rather as "except for the power to die," "unless I had the power to die." The lines would then read: unless she were mortal, if she did not have the power to die, she would have only the power to kill. And when we straighten out the grammatical construction of a condition-contrary-to-fact to conform with fact, we come closer to the meaning: with mortality, if she does have the power to die--as indeed she does--she would not have only the power to kill. What else or what more would she then have? There are two clues. First, the variant of "art" for "power" in the last line links "the power to die," mortality, all the more closely with "the power to kill," the artistic process. In addition, the causal conjunction "for" relates the capacity for death in the second rune back to the capacity for life in the first rune. Thus, for her the power to die is resolved in the artist's power to kill, whereby she dies into the hypostasized work of art. The animus muse enables her to fix the dying moment, but it is only her human capabilities, working in time with language, which are able to translate that fixed moment into the words on the page. The artistic act is, therefore, not just destructive but in the end self-creative. In a mysterious way the craftsmanship of the doomed artist rescues her exalted moments from oblivion and extends destiny beyond "dying" and "killing."

Now we can grasp the two runes together. The poet’s living and dying permit her to be an artist; impelled by the animus, she is empowered to kill experience and slay herself into art. Having suffered mortality, she "dies into life," as Keats's phrase in Hyperion has it; virgin as the Grecian urn and the passionate figures on it, her poetic self outlasts temporal process and those climactic instants of animus possession, even though in the process of experience she knows him as a free spirit independent of her and transcendent of her poems. In different ways, therefore, each survives the other: she mortal in her person but timeless in her poems, he transpersonal as an archetype but dependent on her transitory experience of him to manifest himself. The interdependence through which she "speaks for" him as his human voice makes both for her dependence and limitations and also for her triumph over dependence and limitation.

Nevertheless, "My life had stood--a Loaded Gun--" leaves no doubt that a woman in a patriarchal society achieves that triumph through a blood sacrifice. The poem presents the alternatives unsparingly: be the hunter or the doe. She can refuse to be a victim by casting her lot with the hunter, but thereby she claims herself as victim. By the rules of the hunter's game, there seems no escape for the woman in the woods. Emily Dickinson's sense of conflict within herself and about herself could lead her to such a desperate and ghastly fantasy as the following lines from poem 1737:

Rearrange a "Wife's" affection!

When they dislocate my Brain!

Amputate my freckled Bosom!

Make me bearded like a man!

The violent, exclamatory self-mutilation indicates how far we have come from the pieties of Mrs. Sigourney and her sisters.

Fortunately for Dickinson the alternatives did not always seem so categorical. Some of her most energetic and ecstatic poems--those supreme moments which redeemed the travail and anguish--celebrate her experience of her womanhood. The vigor of these dense lyrics matches in depth and conviction Whitman's sprawling, public celebration of his manhood. At such times she saw her identity not as a denial of her feminine nature in the name of the animus but as an assimilation of the animus into an integrated self.

From "Emily Dickinson and the Deerslayer: The Dilemma of the Woman Poet in America." In Shakespeare’s Sisters: Feminist Essays on Women Poets. Copyright © 1979 by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar.

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Criticism Overview
Title Albert Gelpi: On 754 ("My Life had stood--a Loaded Gun--") Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Albert Gelpi Criticism Target Emily Dickinson
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 17 Aug 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Shakespeare’s Sisters: Feminist Essays on Women Poets
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