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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?



  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.

    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.

  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."

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

  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.

  4. Looking at the 1st stanza backwards, while we are mortal (this side of the vail/veil), our physical consciousness is the only thing that links us to God/deity/Oversoul - WE are the “screw of flesh” .
    Once we die (and are wrapped in the gauze of body wrappings), our physical consciousness, which is manifest in words (“alphabet” and “name”), is “put away” with the other manifestations of our physical being - hands and nerves that we only had to use in our bodily life (“peril”). What is left is love, which is so “giant” that the gods and heaven have nothing to offer that is anywhere near its value, and they know it, and it is the “keepsake.”
    Just another idea.

    1. I'm with you (having revised and then re-revised my thoughts) except that the 'new-mailed Nerve' and 'keepsake' complicate it. I keep thinking of a transcendental experience -- where self/other is dissolved (more hands) and one is swept into a bliss/love (striding!). 'Keepsake' is hard, but I fancy it is the same as 'Clay'. The Clay/body won't relinquish its stream-entering spirit for all that the conventional Trinity, angels, other gods, etc., can offer.

  5. that striding Love greater than the gods can show reminds me of my favorite ED poem which ends, "When all space has been beheld and all dominion shown/ the smallest human heart's extent reduces it to none."

    Thanks for your gloss. It is surely helpful for poems as esoteric as ones like this.

  6. The BYU ED Lexicon’s most appropriate definition of “screw” in this poem’s context is a “peg or serrated nail that fastens materials together.”

  7. Before I give a completely different spin to this poem, here are two direct quotes from Habegger’s 2001 biography, ‘My Wars Are Laid Away in Books (Pp. 678 and 810). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition:

    “Again and again, the slender evidence as to the identity of the man Dickinson loved points to Wadsworth. Every other known candidate of either sex can be ruled out; he never is. Yet he is never confirmed. The probable explanation is that the love was on her side only, it was a question of feeling and imagination more than action, she covered her tracks well, and the intensely private Wadsworth was equally careful. Also, her family shielded her—and then whispered among themselves about that married Philadelphia clergyman. His children, one of whom was a minister and another the Philadelphia coroner, undoubtedly did everything in their power to protect their father’s reputation, especially after Martha Bianchi went public in 1924 with her foolish version of the story.”

    “George F. Whicher’s amusing report of a 1930s interview with the last surviving and very dignified child, Dr. William S. Wadsworth [Philadelphia’s coroner], appeared in The Nation in 1949 [July 2, ‘Pursuit of the Overtakeless’]. At the end of the conversation, expressing himself much less guardedly than at first, the doctor assured Whicher his father would not have been “unduly impressed by a hysterical young woman’s ravings.”

    The preceding poem (F292) both here in TPB and in ED’s Fascicle 12, ‘I got so I could take his name’, was about a man who sent ED a boxful of letters and her anger that God, if real, seemed unconcerned about her human misery after he “left the land” (New England and Philadelphia) for California, which, for ED in 1862, seemed like a different universe.

    Here’s an interpretation of ‘A single Screw of Flesh’ (F293), that is much more of this world than others’ comments suggest, and by that I mean not of the next world:

    1. A single bond is all that pins Reverend Wadsworth’s name to mine, while I am alive.

    2. Yesterday, marriage vows conferred “Mrs.” on me, but that title must be unspoken, as if no promise occurred.

    3. In tender, solemn letters that I just barely saw in turning, the title of “Mrs.” was smuggled from my sight into eternity.

    4. He has more hands to hold than mine, but he sent one last letter, in case we never meet again on Earth, promising his striding, giant love.

    5. It’s so much greater than the love gods can give, they slink in its presence. No matter what they can offer, his love will never let me go.

  8. I interpreted the deific counterpart to her soul as her writerly spirit, the gauze as the parchment by which the deity imprints itself, eternity as the eternity of the poem, the plight as a poem the subject wrote yesterday, and the alphabet as the words inscribed onto the parchment. In short, her writerly spirit is directly connected to her soul, and witnessing paper, imprints itself onto it. She describes this extraction as a plight from her soul, into the literal alphabet of the poem. She then talks about how this spirit, sustained within her, is in response to her peril (perceived or actual) and acts as some striding loving giant greater than what gods can destroy, that keeps her as a keepsake.

    I don’t mean to overdetermine the poem however, since some words and lines seem to imply more than this interpretation suggests. Gauze, for example — as you pointed out in your interpretation — is a pretty thin material, and moreso a thin material between the external and internal. Death seems a likely candidate for what’s exterior to the gauze (reading “Eternity” in line 12 as a synonym for death) and so the poem can be reinterpreted as the spirit, witnessing the thin line between life and death, puts itself away into death.

    This is basically a restatement of your interpretation, but if we package it with mine we get a connection between death and writing, which might be the greater point of the poem. To write is to kill, or to at least let die, what was inside you that wanted to be expressed. Yet, despite that death, the spirit recurs — it resurrects, ergo the phrase “new-mailed” towards the end of the poem sounding like new-nailed, and the words “screw” and “pins” at the beginning, connoting Christ.

    The word “Clay” is also an interesting choice at the end, putting me in mind of another kind of resurrection in Greek mythology: Zeus’ creation of man from clay. In fact, the fact she uses gods in plural in the previous line is more evidence for this creation story from a polytheistic mythology.