Emily Dickinson’s “My life had stood a loaded gun” – An interdisciplinary analysis

Matthias Bauer 1 , Nadine Bade 1 , Sigrid Beck 1 , Carmen Dörge 1 , Burkhard von Eckartsberg 1 , Janina Niefer 1 , Saskia Ottschofski 1  and Angelika Zirker 1
  • 1 University of Tübingen, Tübingen, Germany
Matthias Bauer, Nadine Bade, Sigrid Beck, Carmen Dörge, Burkhard von Eckartsberg, Janina Niefer, Saskia Ottschofski and Angelika Zirker


In this article we analyse Emily Dickinson’s poem “My life had stood a loaded gun” using a specific methodology that combines linguistic and literary theory. The first step is a textual analysis with the methods of compositional semantics. The second step is a literary analysis enriching the literal meaning with information about the wider context of the poem. The division of these two steps reflects the distinction between an objective interpretation of the text based solely on the rules of grammar and a subjective reading which draws on various external fields of reference. In combining both steps, we show why some interpretations of the poem are more plausible than others and how different lines of interpretation are related to each other. However, it is not our aim to provide one definite interpretation of the poem or to favour one reading over the others. Rather, we wish to show how Dickinson’s use of specific grammatical mechanisms leads to a number of interpretations which are more or less plausible. That is, we identify plausible interpretations on the basis of grammatical evidence, and we relate these to each other by pointing at instances in the poem where a divergence of interpretations is possible (cases of ambiguity, for example). This method is helpful for literary studies since formal linguistics helps produce a systematic and non-arbitrary analysis, and it is helpful for linguistic analysis since it uncovers which violations of grammar do or do not disturb the interpretative process, and which kind of structures need pragmatic enrichment.

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The Journal of Literary Semantics has pioneered and encouraged research into the relations between linguistics and literature. Widely read by theoretical and applied linguists, narratologists, poeticians, philosophers and psycholinguists, the journal publishes articles of a philosophical or theoretical nature that attempt to advance our understanding of the structures, dynamics, and significations of literary texts.