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.
Bauer, Markus, Matthias Bauer, Sigrid Beck, Carmen Dörge, Burkhard von Eckartsberg, Michaela Meder, Katja Riedel, Janina Zimmermann & Angelika Zirker. 2010. ‘The two coeval come’: Emily Dickinson and ambiguity. LiLi 40(158). 98–124.
Bauer, Matthias. 2006. ‘A Word made Flesh’: Anmerkungen zum lebendigen Wort bei Emily Dickinson. In Volker Kapp & Dorothea Scholl (ed.), Bibeldichtung, 373–392. Berlin: Duncker und Humblot.
Bauer, Matthias & Sigrid Beck. 2014. On the Meaning of Fictional Texts. In D. Gutzmann, J. Köpping & C. Meier (eds.), Approaches to Meaning, 250–275. Leiden: Brill.
Bauer, Matthias & Sigrid Beck. 2009. Interpretation: Local Composition and Textual Meaning. In Michaela Albl-Mikasa, Sabine Braun & Sylvia Kalina (eds.), Dimensionen der Zweisprachenforschung / Dimensions of Second Language Research: Festschrift für Kurt Kohn, 289–300. Tübingen: Narr.
Beck, Sigrid & Uli Sauerland. 2000. Cumulation is Needed: A Reply to Winter. Natural Language Semantics 8. 349–371.
Beck, Sigrid & Arnim von Stechow. 2006. Dog after Dog Revisited. In Christian Ebert & Cornelia Endriss (eds.), Proceedings of the Sinn und Bedeutung 10, 43–54. Oslo: University of Oslo; Berlin: Zentrum für Allgemeine Sprachwissenschaft.
Crane, Stephen. 1995. Flanagan and his Short Filibustering Adventure (1897). Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library. Deirdre Johnson (corrector). http://xtf.lib.virginia.edu/xtf/view?docId=modern_english/uvaGenText/tei/CraFlan.xml (accessed 11 Jan 2012).
Franklin, R. W. 1986. The Master Letters of Emily Dickinson. Amherst: Amherst College Press.
Franklin, R. W. 1998. The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.
Freeman, Margaret. 1998. A Cognitive Approach to Dickinson’s Metaphors. In Gudrun Grabher (ed.), The Emily Dickinson Handbook, 258–272. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press.
Frege, Gottlob. 1892. Über Sinn und Bedeutung. Zeitschrift für Philosophie und philosophische Kritik NF 100. 25–50.
Hagenbüchle, Roland. 1984. The concept of ambiguity in linguistics and literary criticism. In Richard J. Watts & Urs Weidmann (eds.), Modes of Interpretations: Essays Presented to Ernst Leisi on the Occasion of his 65th Birthday, 213–221. Tübingen: Gunter Narr.
Kratzer, Angelika. 1991. Modality. In Arnim von Stechow & Dieter Wunderlich (eds.), Semantik/Semantics: Ein internationales Handbuch zeitgenössischer Forschung, 639–651. Berlin: De Gruyter.
Leiter, Sharon. 2007. Critical Companion to Emily Dickinson: A Literary Reference to her Life and Work. New York: Facts On File.
Link, Godehard. 1991. Plural. In Arnim von Stechow & Dieter Wunderlich (eds.), Semantik/Semantics: Ein internationales Handbuch zeitgenössischer Forschung, 418–440. Berlin: De Gruyter.
López Maestre, María D. 2015. ‘Man the hunter’: a critical reading of hunt-based conceptual metaphors of love and sexual desire. Journal of Literary Semantics, 44(2). this issue.
Miller, Christanne. 1987. Emily Dickinson: A Poet’s Grammar. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Montague, Richard. 1973. The Proper Treatment of Quantification in Ordinary English. In K. J. J. Hintikka, J. M. E. Moravcsik & P. Suppes (eds.), Approaches to Natural Language, 221–242. Dordrecht: Reidel.
Ouida. 1871. Under Two Flags, vol. 1. Leipzig: Bernhard Tauchnitz. 2 vols.
Ovid. 1980. The Metamorphoses of Ovid. Mary M. Innes (ed. and transl.). London: Penguin.
Porter, David T. 1981. Dickinson: The Modern Idiom. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Shakespeare, William. 2000. The Sonnets. Booth Stephen (ed.). New Haven: Yale University Press.
Sparks, Eliza Kay. n.d. Chronological List of Criticism on Emily Dickinson’s ‘My Life had Stood, a Loaded Gun’. http://virtual.clemson.edu/caah/women/flc436/Dickinson/EDchrolist.htm (accessed 9 June 2011).
Spenser, Eliza Kay Edmund. 1958. The Works of Edmund Spenser. In Edwin Greenlaw (ed.), The Minor Poems. Vol. 2. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.
Stechow, Arnim von. 2008. Tenses in Compositional Semantics. In Wolfgang Klein (ed.)., The Expression of Time in Language, 129–166. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
Webster, Noah. An American Dictionary of the English Language. Vol. I. . New York: Johnson Reprint, 1970.
Weisbuch, Robert. 1975. Emily Dickinson’s Poetry. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Wyatt, Thomas. 1981. The Complete Poems. R. A. Rebholz (ed.). New Haven: Yale University Press.
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.