Guarding Master’s Head


by Maryhelen Snyder

This is an edited version of an essay that appeared in the Winter, 2010 issue of Poet Lore. A PDF version of this article can be downloaded here.

Shakespeare is the only biographer of Shakespeare and even he can tell nothing except to the Shakespeare in us, that is, to our most apprehensive and sympathetic hour.

    from  “Shakespeare, or The Poet” by Ralph Waldo Emerson

“With what joy I begin to read a poem which I confide in as an inspiration!” wrote Emerson in his essay on “The Poet,” an essay written in those remarkable years of the mid nineteenth century that produced the seminal early works of American poetry. Emerson assigns the poets  “the nature and function of conveying the hidden truth that we are “children of the fire.” Unbeknownst to Emerson, Emily Dickinson was in those very early years immersing herself in that fire, - its White Heat, its Vesuvian explosions, its devastating and transformative effect on the Pompei of the self.

As Michael Ryan writes in “A Difficult Grace,”(1) Dickinson’s poems “walk the edge of unintelligibility.” This is the circumference that she made the business of her life’s work. It is natural, Ryan adds, to try to make her work more accessible “by looking for hints of the person” behind her poems. Dickinson instructs us not to do this. In letters to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, for example, she informs us that she is not the “I” of the poem; rather it is a “supposed person” who is taking consciousness out to its absolute limits and looking over that edge to where, if the poem succeeds, the reader will experience her own wonder and terror.

My Life had Stood – a Loaded Gun ” is a prime example of  a Dickinson poem that has led critics and biographers astray when they seek to contain its meaning in a personal narrative.

Here is the poem:

My Life had stood -- 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 its 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 –

#754; c.1863

Dickinson’s characteristic regularities of rhythm are at their optimum perfection here.  The poem is written in Dickinson’s habitual ballad or hymnal stanzas, each quatrain composed of alternating four and three beat iambic lines. Thus there are exactly 28 syllables in each quatrain, never forced, never separating sound from sense, and never boring. The poem is also a particularly fine example of the relevance of Dickinson’s refusal of closed sentences and de-marked phrases. Each dash has the effect of leading us forward and backward. The entire poem ends at the circumference of consciousness, the edge at which our dying and our living meet.

Among a wide diversity of interpretations of this poem by Dickinson scholars, it is difficult to find a single instance in which the analysis has not bumped up against a wall of confusion. Roland Hagenbüchle (2) organizes dozens of these scholarly interpretations under various categories such as psychoanalytic, historic/biographical, cultural, feminist, deconstructivei and hermeneutics. In his summation of this undertaking, Hagenbüchle writes: “One might conclude that almost all has been said - at least for the present, And yet the central crux – ‘Who is the Master?’ and “What function precisely does he fill in relation to the gun and its instrumental character?’ still largely eludes us.”(3)

        While walking the edge of intelligibility, the poem is nevertheless committed to the precision of its metaphors. For example, the “loaded gun,” explicitly a metaphor for “my life,” does not veer from its limits as a lifeless tool of protection and destruction until it is put into the hands of the “Owner.” In her essay, “A Cognitive Approach to Dickinson’s Metaphors,” Margaret H. Freeman (4) emphasizes this Dickinsonian precision. She notes that the concrete, source image of the loaded gun tightly constrains the way we are invited to experience the abstract target image, “my life.” Looked at this way, the last stanza is consistent with the rest of the poem. A gun has only the power to kill, and neither the power to die nor the power to live. The Master (Owner) alone has these powers, and when the speaker of the poem surrenders her life to His ownership, she experiences a boundless joy.  Freeman attributes most of the argument over various interpretations of this poem to an absence of rigor in following the poem’s internal metaphorical logic.

But the ubiquitous failure to make coherent sense out of this poem arises, I believe, out of a larger error. The attempt to make “sense” of a poem is itself problematic. It is necessary to distinguish between two ways of knowing.  What is sometimes called poetic or aesthetic knowing (5) is categorically different from the linear, discourse-embedded, time bound constraints within which we typically think. The poem speaks directly to the experiential, emotional, and intuitive ways of knowing which brain research reveals occur in different areas of the brain than intellectual, logical, and conceptual knowing. In the context of poetic or aesthetic knowing, seeming contradictions thrive or vanish. Movement and stillness, separateness and wholeness, the instant and the infinite, the particular and the universal, life and death, grief and joy are not experienced as opposites. We experience life with the multifold capacities of our brains to feel and think, sense and make sense.

In virtually any Dickinson poem, we can notice her keen attention to the path of experience, resulting in a poem that cannot be any further clarified by attempting to explain it.  Hagenbüchle observes that the “deconstructive” act, the careful dismantling of opposing forces of signification within a poem, has already been accomplished by Dickinson’s poems within the body of the poem itself. He writes that in the case of a Dickinson poem, “deconstruction is not a dismantling of the structure of a text, but a demonstration that it has already dismantled itself.” (6) 

The following poem illustrates Dickinson’s highly developed capacity for  representing “opposing forces of signification.” A close look may help us deepen the experiential meaning of the “owner/Master” metaphor and provide insight into what it means to surrender, or be “carried away.”

Me from Myself -- to banish --

Had I Art --

Impregnable my Fortress

Unto All Heart --

But since Myself -- assault Me --

How have I peace

Except by subjugating


And since We're mutual Monarch

How this be

Except by Abdication --

Me -- of Me?

#642;  c.1862

Through this poem’s enactment of the experience of the divided Me, we can glean more fully how the owner and the gun in the poem under discussion might each be seen as aspects of that Me. In the third line of the poem, the word “identified” applies to both subject and object, a syntactical feature of Dickinson’s poems that is equally a subjective experience of consciousness. In the Owner’s simultaneous identification of both himself and the gun, he is pointing to the two aspects of the self’s experience.  The root of the word identity is idem, the same. There is no resistance on the part of the gun to the Owner’s ownership.  Here we must engage the Dickinson in us in our most apprehensive and sympathetic hour in order to absorb the poem’s meaning. Specifically, we must engage the experience of standing lifeless in a corner of confined space, a life without aliveness, “loaded” with all the biological readiness for destruction and protection, but without any infusion of life’s divine fire. Abdication comes willingly then and leads to instant joy.  In this abdication, the gun retains its singular power to kill, protect, and defend.  Neither aspect of the self is lost; one simply serves the other.

The Owner alone has “the power to die.” This phrase is not experientially confusing. It becomes confusing only when we attempt to analyze and explain it through one or more of the many interpretive lenses available to us. When we fully engage our own consciousness, the power to die is transformed into a power that is seamless with the power to live. Dickinson is not unique among poets in her radical departure from common cultural understandings of death. To understand Dickinson’s relationship to death and to despair, we must take her at her word. As Richard Wilbur suggests in his essay, “Sumptuous Destitution,” her word consistently describes despair as sustenance. “A perfect, paralyzing bliss/ Contented as despair” speaks to an existential reality, not to logic or explication. It is a reality we can know when face to face with death and other experiences of absolute loss. 

Our attunement to the lived experience of the poem both precedes and is called forth by it.  The reader enters the domain of poetic knowledge with the writer and allows the poem to move her, both emotionally and actively in the creation of her own lived experience.

Louise Gluck describes “poetic intelligence” with specific reference to Dickinson: “Poetic intelligence derives its energy from a willingness to discard conclusion . . . This flexibility, and this intensity of purpose, give the eerie steadiness of mind Emily Dickinson has; even poets who stray wildly, intentionally, display such steadiness, since its essence is attentiveness to the path of thought.”(7).  On the final page of his essay on “Searching for Dickinson’s Themes,” David Porter concludes, “For theme-seeking readers, especially, Dickinson is not forbiddingly, but, rather, triumphantly unmanageable.” (8)

The sexual-erotic aspect of Dickinson’s poetry is a potent example of this “triumphant unmanageability.” The confusion that one finds in the critical response to the place of sexuality in her poems has to do largely I think with our linguistic and cultural conflation of the sexual and the erotic. Erotic delight is not repressed sexuality. Dickinson writes with images of unbridled abandonment, She shares with Whitman an understanding that all living is erotic, not excluding one’s experience of the “soul,” Whitman’s and Dickinson’s most ravishing lover.

Her poem “I started Early - Took my Dog -”  ends with the image of the Sea rising on her body “as He would eat me up - ”.  The Tide overtakes her in a magnificent, slow progression up her body from toe to ecstatic tip. In the Solid Town, the Tide knows no one except herself: “And bowing – with a Mighty look -/ At me – The Sea withdrew -”.

These images are sometimes interpreted as repressed sexuality – but there is no repression here. Her images are blatantly, joyfully and often terrifyingly erotic. “My Life had stood – “ is no exception to this. The Master, like the Tide, is the mighty and ravishing Soul to which Dickinson joyfully succumbs.

In conclusion, let us return to Emerson’s insight that Shakespeare is the only biographer of Shakespeare and that even he can tell us nothing except to the Shakespeare in us. In Dickinson’s other poems of the same period as “My Life had stood - ”, we will find the clearest light shed on this poem which has confounded so many.  It is Dickinson’s intent and accomplishment to make her experience available to the reader and to make the reader’s experience more available to herself, provided in both cases that we are not afraid of the Soul at White Heat.  For example, poem #756,  “One Blessing had I than the rest,” describes a “perfect - paralyzing Bliss - ” without the use of the Master metaphor. It reveals Dickinson’s knowledge of a Blessing that eliminates all Want and Cold, transforming them into phantasms in the face of this new Value in the Soul – Supremest Earthly Sum - ”

Greatness in poetry, and greatness in the human spirit, defy any easy summation, not because of repression or obfuscation or secrecy, but because of the complexity and subtlety of experience itself. In poem #756, Dickinson has the extraordinary line, “Contented – as Despair”  directly following “A perfect – paralyzing Bliss - ” This is hard for the logical mind to decipher, but not for the soul to know.


  1. 1.Michael Ryan, A Difficult Grace (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2000), 127-137; 159-178.

  2. 2.Roland Hagenbüchle., “Dickinson and Literary Theory” in G. Grabher, R. Hagenbüchle and C. Miller, eds. The Emily Dickinson Handbook (Amherst, MA: U. of Mass. Press, 1998), 356-384.

  3. 3.Hagenbüchle, ibid., 366.

  4. 4.Margaret H. Freeman, “A Cognitive Approach to Dickinson’s Metaphors” in Grabher et al. eds.,op. cit. (1998), 258-272.

  5. 5.See C.K. Williiams, “Admiration of Form: Reflections on Poetry and the Novel,” American Poetry Review, (January, February, 1995), 13-23.

  6. 6.Hagenbüchle, ibid., 379

  7. 7.Louise Gluck, Proofs and Theories: Essays on Poetry. (New York: Ecco, 1994), 95

  8. 8.David Porter, “Searching for Dickinson’s Themes” in Grabher et al, eds. op.cit. (1998), 183-196.

Reflections on My Emily Dickinson