Nerves are what Emily Dickinson wrote about, on, with: reading Dickinson starts with Nerve, and her poems and their acute distillation speak to this element of exposure, energy raw but controlled. But what does Nerve mean in Dickinson’s poetry? Some of Dickinson’s most canonical poems present her treatment of the word: “The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –” (Fr372, “After great pain, a formal feeling comes ”) and “Or would they go on aching still / Through Centuries of Nerve –” (Fr550, “I measure every Grief I meet”). With just these two poems we are given Dickinson’s complicated abstract entity that influences action. But what do we do with this incredible (and perhaps incredulous) command: “If your Nerve, deny you — / Go above your Nerve —” (Fr329)? Within the poem, Nerve becomes a parallel term for Soul, and the speaker commands the “you” figure to rend him or herself from a channel of living, become something not really of body or of spirit. I trace the term through Dickinson’s work to see how “nerve” is associated with pain, endurance, and this odd positioning (physical and temporal) of the self to action.


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pp. 13-26
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