Rusty ammunition

The past is such a curious creature,
To look her in the face
A transport may reward us,
Or a disgrace.

Unarmed if any meet her,
I charge him, fly!
Her rusty ammunition
Might yet reply!

~emily dickinson

What a weird little poem! The meter is what strikes me first–it’s mixed-up, the last lines of both stanzas coming short and abrupt on the heels of the more typical longer lines before. The first line of the poem is noticeably, awkwardly longer than any of the rest, too, giving the whole poem a choppy feel.

Is this what Dickinson is going for? She’s delving into the past–into our experience of it from the present, and the ways in which it can either affirm or negate us. Perhaps she’s set up this awkward pacing to echo the hesitance with which the speaker approaches the idea of the past, or her own past in particular.

In the first stanza, the speaker begins with the positive–past memories may reward us with happiness. But in the last line of the stanza, she presents an alternative–the past may be a disgrace. It’s the second notion she sticks with for the entirety of the second stanza, elaborating that the past is dangerous. You must approach it with caution, armed against whatever you may find. The past may be gone, but it’s still potent–it still has the power to wound via “rusty ammunition.”

The description of the past in this poem makes it sound like an adversary–it’s described in militant terms. The past is not necessarily our ally. The poem’s final image calls to mind, for me, a grizzled, at least slightly mad old Civil War veteran sitting on his porch, yelling at kids to get off his lawn while balancing an ancient firearm across his knees. Is it loaded? Maybe not. Maybe. Does it work? Do you want to find out?