Emily Dickenson was born exactly 150 years before me, on December 10, 1930 and I on the same day in 1980. I remember reading about her growing up because I wanted to know who this famous person was that shared my birthday. I understood that she was a great writer but I couldn’t understand her so young. As an adult I found that her poetry had a message for me. Her works, My Life Had Stood a Loaded Gun and I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died, clearly tell us about the hardships she endured during her lifetime through symbolism and themes of power and mortality. In My Life had stood a loaded gun, Dickenson tells the story of a gun (herself) and her owner. It’s filled with lots of random capitalization and dashes. In the first stanza we find out that the speaker’s life is a loaded gun, “My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun -”.
As the gun the speaker sits in a corner for quite some time until someone, a new character, comes along and sees her, wants what the speaker has takes off with them, “In Corners – till a Day the Owner passed – identified – And carried Me away -”. Here capitalization clearly notates the importance of the characters. It’s already interesting here because in the first line, the speakers life is the loaded gun but in the last line the speaker is the loaded gun. Symbolism is important here because a gun is a gun but this gun is loaded. The speaker as a gun is ready to fire, explode, erupt. In the second stanza the two characters are off gallivanting in the woods, hunting for doe.
Every time the gun goes off the speaker is talking to the owner. The mountains that surround them are giving back echoes of the gun fire. “And now We roam in Sovereign Woods – And now We hunt the Doe -” The speaker has now discharged or released something, perhaps her own voice based on the language in the next 2 lines; “And every time I speak for Him The Mountains straight reply – “. When a voice is forced, like a bullet shot out of a gun, it usually sounds angry or loud and maybe even alarming or shocking and it’s directed at their master, a man, undoubtedly. That voice or bullet is so loud that there is an echo. I think we find out why in the third stanza where the speaker leads us to believe the sound comes from a pleasurable experience, perhaps a sexual one. The speaker is smiling or for the gun, it’s glowing because it’s hot from being fired so much; “And do I smile, such a cordial light, Opon the Valley glow -”.
The speaker goes on to say, “It is as a Vesuvian face, Had let it’s pleasure through”. The “Vesuvian” reference to a volcano eruption and the pleasure that comes from it could mean the gun has done it’s job and glows from being fired so much the speaker is satisfied with sexual pleasure and the voice is that of an amazing orgasm. “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 -”. So now the gun hangs over the masters bed so it’s always at the ready and at the same time Dickenson pulls a switch on us and is telling us that the speaker is not a woman, that it actually is a gun because it’s better to be a gun than a woman next to this man sharing a pillow, always available to him.
According to Wikipedia, Eider ducks pull their own feathers out to make their nests. Now the master is being referred to as a self destructing being which makes me think of the old saying, “You’ve made your bed now lie in it’. The master created this world now he must live in it. Now the speaker proclaims her love and devotion to the master by telling us how she’ll protect him; “To foe of His – I’m deadly foe – None stir the second time – On whom I lay a Yellow Eye – Or an emphatic Thumb -”. Speaker is both woman and gun here but another switch is pulled by Dickenson because you cannot be both gun and thumb of a human. Whoever the speaker is, they’re not letting anyone near because they’re gonna shoot an enemy dead the first attempt. They’re intent is so passionate that she makes sure you understand that there is no failure or missing the target.
The poem finishes with “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 -”. Both gun and woman make perfect sense here. If the speaker is the gun then it’s all about needing the master to use the gun for it to have any worth and if the master is dead, the gun cannot be used and is therefore worthless. A woman, especially in the times of Dickensons life, was fairly reliant on a man. It would give this character not only something to live for but something to charge her and without him, not much reason to live at all. In Dickesons poem I heard a Fly Buzz When I Died we begin in a room, a quiet room, a room so quiet one could hear a fly buzzing. “I heard a Fly buzz – when I died – The Stillness in the Room, Was like the Stillness in the Air – Between the Heaves of a Storm -” is what we read first. You, the reader are in the room, a wake.
You can hear the fly buzz also, it’s only quiet for a moment because here comes the next wave of visitors or “the heaves of a storm”. The next stanza it becomes clear that folks have been there for awhile, stayed long enough to get out their anguished cries and now have stopped to take a deep breath as the “the King be witnessed – in the room”, or her father. At this point I see that the speaker in the coffin is Emily herself and knowing what I know about her life I can surmise that this is her father, the king, the power. She goes on to tell us that “I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away, What portion of me be Assignable – and then it was There interposed a Fly -”. She’s given her belongings away and the pieces of herself that people claimed to be responsible for, her good and bad qualities as a person. Here comes this fly at the end of the stanza, to symbolize that it was all impure, diseased, and full of bad intent. The last four lines tell us about her last glimpse on the room.
“With Blue – uncertain – stumbling Buzz – Between the light – and me – And then the Windows failed – and then I could not see to see – “. She’s on her way to the after life, “the light”, after being a ghost in the room of her wake and here comes this annoying little fly to interrupt the journey, to remind her of the bad intent. This goes with her as she passes on to the next and no longer has the “window” to see the mortal life in the room any longer. Dickenson uses symbolism and to help get the seriousness of her situation and she does so in both poems. In My Life Had Stood a Loaded Gun she turns herself into a loaded gun. Guns are powerful weapons and she becomes one so that we might see the intensity of the subject, the way it was for women in the 1800’s. Using the loaded gun analogy tells me that she would not speak unless spoken to, the anger and aggression that comes with maintaining silence, especially for someone so full of ideas.
The same happens in In I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died. A fly is used to symbolize unclean, rotten, diseased intent, surely from the the people who took from her what was “assignable’. The fly tells us that she didn’t leave her life on good terms and with it’s reappearance in the poem, that she won’t leave earth that way either. It’s as though Dickenson, even though we don’t know why she dies in the poem, she gave of herself selflessly and whatever she had to give, she gave. How utterly depleting for her in both accounts. Both poems also have a mortality theme. My Life Had Stood a Loaded Gun considers mortality at the end of the poem. “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 -”.
Here she is considering her role with mortality and how much it depends on “Master” wether she lives or dies. Guns don’t die but women do. Then in I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died you see her considering another side of mortality, the ghost, the spirit stuck between worlds, the one standing in the room with the rest of the grieving, watching. She even has sensations like being able to feel “the Stillness in the Room Was like the Stillness in the Air”. Though the experiences are different, Dickenson must have been in a state of suffering to clearly understand and explore the inevitable. But what could have caused such suffering? It may have come from a power greater than herself, perhaps her controlling father and brothers.
In these poems the underlying power theme shines through. We first see the power in My Life… “And now we roam in Sovereign Woods” tells us the master and she are out in his territory, where he possesses ultimate power. Power shows up again when she describes their bed, calling him “My Master” for the first time. And again in the last stanza she lets us know how much power he has over her and wether she lives to protect him or dies; “For I have but the power to kill, Without (him) – the power to die”. I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died gives one and only one reference to the powers that be and that is to her father, “The Eyes around – had wrung them dry – And Breaths were gathering firm For the last Onset – when the King, Be witnessed – in the Room”.
The crowd has literally pulled themselves together for this man, who is so powerful that his entrance must be “witnessed”. It’s poems like these that make me thankful to not have lived in Dickenson’s time but I can’t help but think, through the ongoing mortality and power themes that she really needed to have an outlet like writing. Of course, she had to keep it toned down, so using symbolism helped get her points across. Otherwise, she may have suffered the emotional death in I Heard A Fly Buzz or succumbed to a speechless life with a lover who only allowed her to speak when spoken to in My Life Had Stood. Even 180 years later her message is relevant to me…use your words.