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28 August 2012

If your Nerve, deny you—


If your Nerve, deny you—
Go above your Nerve—
He can lean against the Grave,
If he fear to swerve—

That's a steady posture—
Never any bend
Held of those Brass arms—
Best Giant made—

If your Soul seesaw—
Lift the Flesh door—
The Poltroon wants Oxygen—
Nothing more –
                                                            F329 (1862)  292

Dickinson’s poem raises a question about just who the “you” is, for in this poem there is an Uber-Nerve, a transcendent "you." The you's identity is more than fortitude or courage—or will—for if these should fail, she advises that "you" transcend “Nerve” and leave the poor devil to contemplate death. “He can lean against the Grave,” if he is unsteady. That should buck him up for there’s no weakness, no “bend” in death—it’s a certainty. After contemplating death perhaps you would be more willing to take risks, live a less safe and conventional life. Perhaps Dickinson is thinking here about her decision to dedicate her life to poetry. She knew that few people in her time would read it, and she willingly isolated herself from even her closest friends.
           In the second stanza Dickinson portrays the fearful Nerve, having been sent to lean against the Grave, as being held and strengthened by the  “Brass arms” (“Best Giant made”—as if Vulcan himself had hammered them) that serve as memorial decorations. They stand for for the arms of Death, and their grip will never loosen.
The Dickinson family cemetery plot
            At the end, the poet gives advice about wavering souls. The transcendent "you" is also distinct from the soul. If the you discovers its soul seesawing, it should understand the soul has been too hemmed in by the body. Give the scamp, the “Poltroon,” a little more breathing space. All he wants is air, “Nothing more.” When Dickinson says to “Lift the Flesh door”—a fine and surprising phrase—I think she means more than going outside on a nice day. Rather, we should open the door of our body so that the soul can breathe in a more esoteric and spiritual air. It grows weak on a diet of small talk and daily tasks.
            Taken together, the three stanzas offer readers two pieces of advice: 1) always remember that death waits for all of us; this knowledge should help us life to the fullest rather than safely. 2) give your soul nourishment. Don’t let it wither for lack of air.
            The question remains, however: by what agency can we regulate our soul and our will? Is there a Self greater than these parts? Based on this and other Dickinson poems, I would venture that the transcendent "You" is the deciding mind. How else could we weigh the options and hold a steady course?
            The opening lines of the poem are very strong, drawing in the reader. The slant rhymes of that stanza are also strong: “Nerve,” “Grave,” and “swerve.” In the last stanza the “s” alliteration in “Soul seesaw” reinforces the idea of seesawing, as does the word “seesaw” itself. The trochee of “Flesh door” in the following line also lends a certain heavy importance to the thought.


19 comments:

  1. This is so great- not only this essay, but your entire project. I sooo applaud you!

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    1. Thanks! Reader response is a great boon -

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  2. This feels like a mystic's map to higher reality in which, to reach it, you must go beyond your will. It is leaning against the grave that gives the one ascending enough rootedness to go higher, the steadiness. Then the last stanza that flips us back down into the soul, ah ordinary, no big deal, she seems to say, the Poltroon, who might be scared, just needs to breathe.

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    1. Well said.
      That last stanza, the lifting of the "Flesh door", sounds grimmer to me now that I'm a couple hundred poems further into Dickinson's opus.
      Can she be using a bit of macabre drollery to say a bit of Death will steady the Soul -- just as leaning on the grave will steady the Nerve?

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  3. I don't know when in her life she became certain that this earthly reality was like skin on the eternal one, probably understood in glimpses and snatches, but I think she KNOWS and her poems are testaments to this knowing and instructions for the imagined audience we, 150 years later, have actually become. I think she plays with us like a very clever child, as she, in her untouchable uniqueness, through her beguiling poems stands beside us on our seasaw, pushing us up and bringing us down, steadying us, as would a parent (as well).

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    1. Yes --she is our diver and guide. I love the child/seesaw image. Seems just right. "steadying us" -- yes, to that, too. thanks!

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  4. This is probably too obvious to mention, but I see someone holding a rifle or shotgun in these lines. "He" is bracing himself against the Grave to steady his shooting, and the Brass arms envelop to hold him, as an adult might do teaching a child how to hold a gun.
    If you see this image, the Soul seesawing is the choice to shoot or not to shoot - whether the poet can write what she knows is truth or whether she must cave to the needs of the" Poltroon."

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    1. I do indeed envision it -- as long as the verb "brace" is there. I don't see it with "lean", especially after the intro lines of "If your Nerve deny you..."

      But now that I re-read the poem, some 250 poems later, I see a clear demarkation within the poem that I seem to have missed completely. The first part is about the Nerve: if he denies you he can be bucked up by contemplating death. That should steady him. The second part is about the soul and is introduced with a parallel structure: "If your Soul seesaw". While the unsteady Nerve was sent to lean into the brass arms of the grave, Dickinson has different advice on how to handle the unsteady soul: "Lift the flesh door". The Nerve needs the deathly brass; the Soul needs freedom from its fleshly confinement.

      I know, this doesn't bear on your comment -- but you made me look!
      Back to your comment: there is too much confusion about agency: someone is sending the nerve; the nerve has a potential action; someone should air the Soul; the Soul has a specific desire. Your interpretation makes the Soul the same as the "you", which I don't think is supported.
      And then there is the speaker's voice ...

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  5. Yes, I see what you mean about the Nerve and the Soul being separate aspects of the "Self," which explains the "He" which I found puzzling at first. I'm not sure how the two are related in the poem. I feel like the Soul is fainting a little at the thought of what the Nerve might do.

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  6. (PS) I'm not sure exactly what image "Poltroon" might have conjured in those days, but I think it is someone looked down upon, despised for his lack of substance. Funny way to describe one's Soul!

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    1. The ED Lexicon (http://edl.byu.edu/lexicon) has it as "Rascal; rogue; scoundrel; coward; spiritless craven; timid creature; frightened thing." BTW, if you register at this free site you then get all the references from ED poems. A fantastic resource. Can't imagine how much time went into it.

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  7. Speaking of "the transcendent you" in relation to personal, decisive actions, when I was a young person I heard the concept, throw your hat over the wall and then you will have to climb over the wall to get it. I thought of this concept at several points in my life when I decided to take risky new directions, somewhat in the spirit also of Huck Finn's "Alright then, I'll go to hell." That is what I flashed on when I first read the encouraging, opening lines of this poem.

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    1. I like that -- good advice. I should take it!

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  8. Poltroon - what a choice of words! Kinda brings to mind Emily Bronte's poem, "No Coward Soul is Mine," a poem that Emily Dickinson greatly admired. Just a little oxygen now and then to strengthen the soul!

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  9. another layer, that I don't think stretches the interpretation - "swerve" was an important concept for the Presocratics, specifically Anaxagoras. It was the complement to physical reality that permits free will. The spiritualizing influence. I'm guessing ED was aware of the usage.

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    1. I had forgotten about the atomist's swerve -- the unpredictable atomic movement that allows the tiny space for incipient free will. That makes the nerve seem even more timid -- doesn't want to exert his capacity. Very impressive word choice by Dickinson if she was incorporating this meaning -- and copping a rhyme with 'nerve' as well!

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