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16 July 2012

A single Screw of Flesh

A single Screw of Flesh
Is all that pins the Soul
That stands for Deity, to Mine,
Upon my side the Veil — 

Once witnessed of the Gauze
Its name is put away
As far from mine, as if no plight
Had printed yesterday, 

In tender – solemn Alphabet, 
My eyes just turned to see, 
When it was smuggled by my sight
Into Eternity —

More Handsto hold These are but Two 
One more new-mailed Nerve 
Just granted, for the Peril's sake
Some striding Giant Love — 

So greater than the Gods can show, 
They slink before the Clay, 
That not for all their Heaven can boast 
Will let its Keepsake go

                                                                                          F293 (1862)  263 

I’ve read this poem numerous times and still find it elusive. There is an interesting transcendental aspect to the two aspects of the soul: the first, the part that “stands for Deity,” or what Emerson might call the Oversoul, would be the eternal and divine soul; the other is the rational and spiritual essence of each individual soul. A “veil” separates the two. Death rends the veil.

Veil Nebula: part of the Cygnus constellation, originating
from a supernova some 1470 light years away
         Dickinson writes that she once caught a glimpse of this “Gauze,” implying a near death experience or perhaps an intense transcendental moment. Rather than becoming more drawn to the eternal side, however, she distanced herself from it, not at all ready for the divine side.
 
        We see that “yesterday”—perhaps a literal yesterday or perhaps a longer time ago than that—she made (plighted) some sort of vow. It was “printed… / “In tender—solemn Alphabet; spelled out, that is, from A to Z. She saw it “smuggled” into Eternity as if some heavenly scribe was hastening to show her plight to the Deity. The vow seems to have been in response to the crisis she calls “the Peril” in the fourth stanza. The strength of her experience and her language suggests this may have been a crisis where she felt death was near or perhaps desirable. 
        In response to her plight, as I read it, the Deity granted her three gifts: “More Hands” to support her; emotional strength shown metaphorically as steel armor for her nerves, needed because of the Peril; and a great big “striding” “Love.” Give  me some of that! I imagine the poet flooded with transcendent love, but it may also be love from  a beloved person (living or even recently departed). 
        This must have been a flood of love of life. It doesn’t come from any god essence for it is “greater than the Gods” efforts. In fact, the gods “slink” before our human “Clay” flesh: we are so attached to ourselves, to being alive here and now on earth, that nothing in “all their Heaven” could lure us to the other side of that veil. This idea of gods slinking is remarkable and it forces me to realize that I don’t know what Dickinson was getting at when she talked about the “striding—Giant—Love.” What kind of love, and from whom? And is it really God or the gods or some more distant “Deity” who grants the “new-mailed Nerve?


   

5 comments:

  1. Here are some notes from The Marriage of ED, by Wm Schurr
    Screw - In Dickinson's time, in common household use, the word meant a small package. One would buy a screw of tobacco, or spices [or tea] for instance, the purchase rolled in a loose piece of paper with the ends twisted.

    In the first stanza, there are three: The single screw of flesh pins the soul that stands for deity to my soul.
    The poem memorializes a small person intimately connecting her and the "Thee" of the other fascicles, taken out of this world before its time.

    In Vergil's Aenid, Dido appeals to Aeneas for just such a keepsake, a child of theirs to play in their courtyard and remind her of him when he is gone.
    *****************************
    I think that tender solemn alphabet is probably an epitaph, and that the deceased has more hands to hold up there in heaven where he is now.

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    1. You've helped me read the poem in a new way, thank you. I'm not sure what you meant by "three" in the first stanza: three screws? Three occurrences? I don't see it. But I do now read the poem as between the poet and an other rather than the poet musing on fleshly attachment to life. It seems to me there was a recent death of a beloved; they had just spelled out their love and commitment when she turned and saw his soul departing.

      The more I read this poem the more it fascinates me. I love the image of the "Gauze" for the nature of what stands between us (the visionaries and poets, anyway) and what lies beyond.

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  2. The three in the first stanza, according to Schurr, is the "I" who speaks in the poem, the beloved "soul" who "stands for the Deity" to her, and "a single Screw of Flesh."

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    1. It hadn't occurred to me before to consider the Soul in that stanza to be a beloved before. Thanks!

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  3. So David, if you're saying this is about a "smuggled" infant, I agree. I think I could even take it a bit further but that might be distracting, actually. I want to believe the giant love she refers to is mother for child and thus is beyond the expresssion of gods.

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