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.