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Lesson: Dickinson

Level: College

After reading the “My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun,” you’ll notice the variants at the end of the page that can replace words in the text. Dickinson wrote such variants at the end of many of her poems, though her exact reasoning behind the alternatives is unknown. While many scholars believe that Dickinson merely didn’t finish any of these poems and that the variants were the parts still under consideration, others argue that Dickinson wanted to bring such alternate meanings into the scope of the entire piece. Because several of the alternatives can significantly change the meaning of “My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun,” this poem encourages your students to think about the ways in which a reader’s interaction with the material language of the poem can create new meaning and discovery. In addition, your students can focus on many of the design elements in this Dickinson piece, from her use of dashes to her capitalized letters. These formal decisions increase students’ awareness of options they can pursue with their highly visual node poems.

The first three questions increase your students’ ability to gain an overall read of the text, and once a general understanding of this piece is in place, students are then prepared to undertake theorizing about the role of the variants in the poem. In the best-case scenario, you can dedicate 20-30 minutes of class time to discussing the answers your students developed outside of class.

Lesson: Dickinson

By Emily Dickinson

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 – OurGood Day done –
I guard My Master’s Head –
‘Tis better than the Eider –
+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 –

+the +low +harm +art


Worksheet: “My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun”

Please read, re-read, and annotate Emily Dickinson’s poem, paying special attention to how the variants on the bottom of the page can replace words in the poem. After considering this text, write out your answers to these five questions and bring the sheet to our next discussion.

  1. In the first stanza of the poem, the Owner rediscovers the Gun (or, Life) in a corner. In the next stanza, He and the Gun venture out into the Woods. In the subsequent stanzas, the Gun and Owner find themselves in other settings. What is significant about the progression of where the Gun goes throughout the poem?

  2. What is significant about the various metaphorical uses for the speaker’s life as a gun, as proposed in the poem?

  3. Using the material you developed in the last two questions, what is the poem trying to convey to its readers?

  4. Of the four variants, which significantly alter the meaning of the line or stanza in which they appear? How does such an alteration affect your overall interpretation of the poem?

  5. How might Dickinson be using the variants in this poem? Is she letting the reader create significantly different versions of the poem to interpret? Is she arguing that words like “stir” and “harm” should be considered synonyms?

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