In light of things that have been happening recently it’s interesting to look back and see that some recent events have antecedents quite a while back.
An Emily Dickinson poem appears without title in some editions of her works, but in others is given the title “The Rifle.” The narrator is a firearm who describes standing loaded in a corner until the owner arrives and carries it away. Then there is a reminiscence about the trips it has taken with its master in field and forest, hunting and hiking: “And every time I speak for him, the mountains straight reply.”
Sometimes they have to spend the night outdoors:
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.
But then a subsequent verse, after describing how it is a foe of any foe of its master, the rifle speaks of “on whom I lay a yellow eye, or an emphatic thumb.”
In many editions the letters of the word “thumb” are all capitalized, followed by a period.
Now, the only way a thumb can be used on the trigger of a rifle is when the muzzle is pointed at the person who is handling the weapon. What we are reading is a description of a suicide. And in taking one’s life by that method the movement of the thumb would certainly have to be emphatic.
In the newspapers of Springfield, Mass., which Dickinson frequently read, or even in the Boston papers, sometime probably in the 1870s there could have been a story about a prominent sportsman and hunter who took his own life by shooting himself. As was often the case in those days, the newspaper could subsequently have suggested that readers submit verses about the late lamented. After a couple of lachrymose entries had been published, Dickinson could have said “I can do better than that.” And so she produced a description using the persona of the rifle to narrate the account.
The poem concludes with a convoluted sentence that still highlights the difference between a living creature and merely mechanical device. Remember that it is still the rifle speaking:
Though I than he may longer live, he longer must than I,
For I have but the art to kill — without the power to die.
Think of this in terms of what has happened in Connecticut, Colorado or Arizona, and you can realize the timeless talent of Emily Dickinson.
Kendall Wild is a retired editor of the Herald.MORE IN Commentary
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