WRITING STYLE – INTRODUCTION
Please see the drop-down menu for the poems which I have annotated for meaning, form, structure and language. This particular page is devoted to exploring the recurring features in Emily Dickinson’s poetry. I would like to add reader points of view, so please do let me know what you think.
Let us take Dickinson’s ‘My life had stood — a Loaded Gun –‘. I shall take the stylistic features, one by one, and consider the impact of each on parts of this poem.
First Person Narrator:
One feels that the persona is not always distinct from the author in Emily Dickinson’s poetry because of the degee of emotional intensity. Even in those first person poems that explore experiences after death and where, ipso facto, the thoughts and feelings are those of personae, I find it difficult to avoid writing: ‘the author describes …’.
In ‘My Life had stood — a Loaded Gun –‘, the first person narrator is the imagined persona of a gun. It is much easier to say ‘persona’ here! The repetition of ‘And now We’ in the second verse demonstrates the strength of the bond with the ‘Master’. The persona ‘speaks’ for her master by day and guards him at night. On the figurative level, however, the poem has allegorical interpretations which explore the roles of loyal servant, dependent woman and, fierce protector and adoring lover. The literary Romance tradition of medieval tales such as ‘le Morte d’Arthur’, with their notions of chivalry and platonic courtly love, have been transposed into the American woods: the gallant knight is a pioneer; the bower translates to the woods under the open air; and there is even a symbolic quest for ‘Doe’. The first person narrator is not the impassive third person omniscient author of Romance Tales, but one who enjoys the ecstasy of being possessed by another and who boasts that enemies are effectively dispatched. The persona has a personified physical presence in eye, thumb and smile; it has an identifiable character and feelings; it becomes part of the poet’s representational purpose; and, in the last verse, it has the metaphysical function when considering the nature of mortality and the limitations of mortal love. Now, there’s a real persona for you!
There is frequent use of capitals for nouns and sometimes for adjectives, in Emily Dickinson’s poetry. This poem’s capitals does, as always, have a range of effects. Let us take the first two lines of this poem: the capitalisation of ‘Loaded Gun’ creates the effect of a compound noun (i.e. loaded-gun) instead of what would have otherwise been the less immediate, adjective plus noun. Being an actively primed-to-fire complete entity has ramifications for the parallel second metaphor of the persona’s capitalised ‘Life’ standing inert, in addition to the literal image of a loaded gun being placed in various corners. Moreover, there is the ‘second layer’ metaphor of an unfulfilled lover which is developed in ‘carried Me away’ where the persona is literally and emotionally transported; here the capitalisation of ‘Me’, which is also a stressed syllable, gives an additional tonal quality – perhaps that of surprise or, at least, breathlessness. In ‘Emily Dickinson. Monarch of Perception’, Domhnall Mitchell writes: ‘the force of Dickinson’s capitalisation … is to lift the word out of its literal and into a figurative context, or at least to occasion a dynamic between a depicted scene of death and the domestic terms of the description.’ I would rather say that capitalisation assists figurative meaning and creates additional dynamics which require considerable agility from the reader!
The dash is, for me the most distinctive element of Dickinson’s writing style. I recommend reading Kamilla Denman’s observations. For my part, in the first instance, the dash can simply operate like brackets e.g.
‘And when at night — Our good Day done —
I guard My master’s head’
In one respect, these two lines are a concise reverse-order narrative of ‘once the day has finished, I guard my master’s head.’ However, nothing in Emily Dickinson’s poetry is remains simple: these dashes convey a sense of a conversation akin to ‘Well that was a good day’s work!’ The line continues after ‘head’ with another dash which suggests the speaker’s involuntary confession of adoration, where the master’s head is lovingly portrayed as being better than an eider down pillow. However, another dash now appears before ‘to have shared’; this final dash, changes the verse’s meaning further by allowing ‘sharing’ to allude both to the sharing of a pillow and to the idea that the shared experience of the day is better than luxurious sleep.
Symbolism, Metaphor and personification
On the level of personification, the gun has an identity – partly because it has been ‘identified’ by its master – but, beyond this inter-‘personal’ denotation, it has its own voice which reveals its feelings of pure, unadulterated love for its master. The gun recounts its previous ‘Life’ of ‘standing’ in corners, later ‘roaming’, speaking, smiling etc. On the metaphorical level, the gun’s relationship with its ‘Owner’ signifies that of master and servant in which the servant guards, defends and speaks for her master. The symbolism of a ‘Loaded Gun’ simultaneously indicates the passive and lethal – it is patiently waiting for the opportunity to fulfill its existential purpose: the gun’s ‘true’ essence, as identified by the Owner, is to kill; whereas an alternative ‘true’ essence, revealed through its inner personal voice, is ironically seen in its feelings and musings. On an allegorical level, a male/female relationship is explored in: double meanings such as the persona being ‘carried…away’; the sensuous symbolism of medieval romance in hunting the ‘Doe’, and; connubial sharing of the deep pillow. Furthermore, there is the philosophical meditation on the nature of existence in that although the narrator will last longer, the Owner will live longer. This has further implications if applied to the persona’s life e.g. is Dickinson suggesting that women exist, whilst men live? A further observation on male/female relationships is the alarming way that the man does not contribute to the relationship emotionally in any way whatsoever. The gun, however, kills his enemies for him, with that metaphorically emphatic thumb cocking the rifle and the tell-tale yellow muzzle flash. Although I, personally, do not feel that this poem explores a relationship with a divinity, some do (e.g. Nick Courtright).
In ‘My Life had stood – a Loaded gun -‘, Dickinson uses the persona describes a personal relationship. The language is a personal account of shared experiences with a loved one. The references to sleep, smiling, speaking are therefore not so surprising – indeed, this poem is not a good example of Dickinson surprising us with her lexis. Here everyday occurrences are used to describe the nature of adoring love, whereas in many other poems the everyday describes what is entirely beyond the normal – in such circumstances it is far more noteworthy.
On a literal level, this poem has a traditional feel of a ballad because it is a love-song, conversationally told in a narrative form – although the love that a gun has for its owner is, of course rather an unconventional subject! The story tells of a gun’s meaningless existence ‘in corners’ until the Owner claims it; thereafter, the two spend day and night together until death do them part. The first verse will serve as an example of some structural features, which are typical of the ballad form:
‘My life had stood — a Loaded Gun —
In Corners — till a Day
The Owner passed — identified —
And carried Me away’
You will see, from the syllables in bold type, that the first line has four stressed syllables, the second line has three stressed syllables, the third line has four and the fourth line three. The metre is iambic (light stress then heavy stress: ‘di-dum’, ‘di-dum’, notated ˡ ˇ ˉ ˡ ˇ ˉ ˡ). The regularity of the metre has the effect, in this verse, of enhancing the sense of stasis i.e. the structure enhances the meaning.
Let us, however, now consider the last line of the last verse:
‘Without the power to die’
Here, there are the expected three stressed vowels in the line, but the last three syllables are an unexpected anapest (i.e. di-di-dum, ˡ ˇ ˇ ˉ ˡ); one might reasonably ask what effect is achieved by changing from iamb to anapest and, for me, the addition of a extra lightly stressed syllable slightly delays the word ‘die’, and thereby further brings out both the dramatic impact of death and the irony that the gun has the power to kill but not the ability to die.
Returning to the first verse, we can see that the second and fourth lines rhyme ‘day’ with ‘away’. Rhyme is not consistent throughout the poem; by way of examples of this, there are half rhymes e.g. ‘glow’ and ‘through’ and sometimes rhymes that are very distantly related e.g. ‘time’ with ‘thumb’! In the first verse though, the rhyme still does have a cohesive effect which is most appropriate for the subject matter. Incidentally,we should not be surprised by an erratic rhyme scheme; it is one of the reasons that the ballad is considered a less rigorous form of Common Metre.
MY OTHER PAGES ON EMILY DICKINSON’S WORK
Please go to the Dickinson tab for the drop-down menu on her poems A-Z or click on the following:
Professor Nick Courtright’s analysis and interpretation 4/5 minute youtube presentation considers alternative interpretations of this poem. You may also be interested to see his general introduction to Dickinson’s poetry.
For some details of Emily’s Life, look at Poetry.org, which also provides links to many of her poems and further reading.
A very useful site is Lila Melani’s introduction to her Brooklyn College University course. It provides superb contextual material, insights into the poems and further reading recommendations.
I can also recommend Sharon Leiter’s ‘Emily Dickinson: A literary Reference to her Life and Work’. Using the ‘search’ facility, on the left hand side of that page, produces excellent results!