Mary Loeffelholz: On 754 ("My Life had stood--a Loaded Gun--")

The Dickinson poem that Rich so presciently invoked in 1965, "My Life had stood--a Loaded Gun" (poem 754), has since then attracted diverse interpretations, especially feminist interpretations. It has become the locus of discussion for feminist critics concerned about accounting in some way for the aggression of Dickinson's poetry, beginning with Rich herself. In her 1975 essay "Vesuvius at Home," Rich names "My Life had stood--a Loaded Gun--" as the "'onlie begetter"' of her vision of Dickinson, the poem Rich had "taken into myself over many years."' The language of Rich's critical essay suggestively echoes the issues of the poems Dickinson had already haunted and would later haunt for Rich. While not explicitly violent in the way of Dickinson's loaded gun, Rich's metaphor of incorporating, eating Dickinson's poem establishes, but only to transgress, the boundary between inside and outside. Invoking the dedication to the "onlie begetter" of Shakespeare's sonnets identifies Dickinson's poem with a male literary tradition (although the overriding aim of Rich's essay is to link Dickinson to other women writers) and identifies Dickinson herself with a phallic power (the loaded gun's power) of inseminating Rich's thoughts. It is hardly necessary to add that Rich's language is intimately, evocatively complicit in these respects with the language of Dickinson's poem itself. What it means to be inside or outside another identity; what it means to "take in" or possess; the very meaning of a boundary--are put into question by "My Life had stood--a Loaded Gun--." In this and other poems, Dickinson's often violent transactions with what is "outside" her reflect a situation for women poets of the dominant Anglo-American tradition in which, according to Joanne Feit Diehl, "the 'Other' is particularly dangerous ... because he recognizes no boundaries, extending his presence into and through herself, where the self's physical processes, such as breath and pain, may assume a male identity." The male Other who occasions her speech may also commandeer her very bodily identity, leaving nno refuge of interiority that is her own. Adrienne Rich’s reading of "My Life had stood—" internalizes Dickinson's struggle with the problem of boundary and violence, rendering Dickinson both as the Other male ravisher and as an aspect of Rich's own interior.

From Dickinson and the Boundaries of Feminist Theory. Copyright © 1991 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

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Criticism Overview
Title Mary Loeffelholz: On 754 ("My Life had stood--a Loaded Gun--") Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Mary Loeffelholz Criticism Target Emily Dickinson
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 17 Aug 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Dickinson and the Boundaries of Feminist Theory
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