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15 August 2013

From Blank to Blank —

From Blank to Blank —
A Threadless Way
I pushed Mechanic feet —
To stop — or perish — or advance —
Alike indifferent —

If end I gained
It ends beyond
Indefinite disclosed —
I shut my eyes — and groped as well
'Twas lighter — to be Blind —
                F484 (1862)  J761

Dickinson sends this missive from a dread place – perhaps depression, perhaps grief. One of our greatest psychological explorers, Dickinson can burrow so deeply into her psyche that at times she emerges out the other side in a vasty and musical cosmos; other times she is wrecked in some strange or wretched state, and sometimes she is stuck in some endless, mindless mire. This poem comes from the mire.
       She has to push her feet along as if they were mechanical contraptions that have to be operated. There is no destination, no point of departure, no sights to be seen along the way. She started in a blank and encounters nothing other than blanks. When she looks ahead she sees an indefinite vista of blanks and so prefers to grope her way along rather than trying to see where she is going. Whether she stops or continues or even dies seems of no matter. She is "indifferent" to her options.

The poem is very tightly constructed. The first two lines are a divided tetrameter line. Dickinson breaks the line after "Blank – " taking advantage of the blank white space at the end of the line to reinforce her meaning.
        Dickinson's house was a lawyerly one: both her father and brother were lawyers, as were many of their friends (including Judge Otis Lord, a late-life lover of Dickinson). She would have been very familiar with the blanks on legal documents, the space left empty for lack of content. Dickinson here is treading from one blank to another, occupying that region of emptiness.
       In "Our share of night to bear" ( F116 ), Dickinson also refers to blanks:

Our share of night to bear—
Our share of morning—
Our blank in bliss to fill,
Our blank in scorning—
These blanks indicate potential: we each have a bit of darkness, a bit of morning in our lives; we will have both bliss and scorn. But in the current poem, the poet is not moving from one potentiality to another but from undifferentiated blanks. The path is "Threadless"; the reference is to the famous myth where Theseus who was able to find his way out of a maze by following the thread he'd unspooled going in. The poet has no such thread to guide her.
       It's no wonder, then, that her feet move mechanically. We saw them do this in "After great pain, a formal feeling comes –" ( F372 ):

The Feet, mechanical, go round—
A Wooden way
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought—
Regardless grown
The underlying cause of the torpor in that poem is pain; we are unsure what it is in the current poem. Both offer a trio of what the sufferer has grown indifferent to. In "Pain" it is "Ground, or Air, or Ought"; versus "To stop – or perish – or advance." The stakes seem a bit higher in this poem. Further, in "Pain," there was the "letting go" at the end that seems to promise at least some release. In this one Dickinson recollects a seemingly interminable period of depression, presenting it in a somewhat objective and descriptive manner. If something were gained or learned, the narrator isn't telling. She is simply describing what it is to be in the midst of a numbing blankness.
The second stanza begins with another divided tetrameter line, this time divided to emphasize the word play with "end" and "ends": the first a noun and the second a verb. "If" the narrator gained what she thought were an end, she discovered it wasn't an end after all. The end was really further ahead, just as hikers think they've finally come to the summit of the mountain only to find another summit looming in front of them. The poet, in a moment of clarity, saw an indefinite expanse of ends. That is when she shut her eyes, preferring to grope her way along.
      Dickinson uses "lighter" to good effect in the final line with its twin meanings of "less heavy" and "brighter." Her world of blankness is brighter with her eyes shut; the oppressiveness of her path is less when she cannot see it.

There is a word for what the narrator experiences, and Dickinson gives us that word in  F355: "It was not Death, for I stood up." After describing the dismal condition she finds herself in ("As if my life were shaven, / And fitted to a frame"), the narrator concludes with a word of diagnosis:

But, most, like Chaos—Stopless—cool—
Without a Chance, or Spar—
Or even a Report of Land—
To justify—Despair.
Despair is an unearned thing in Dickinson's lexicon. It is "An imperial affliction / Sent us of the Air" ("There's a certain Slant of light"  F320 ). She follows where it leads, even if only from "Blank to Blank," chronicling her journeys and couching them in evocative language and metaphor. In this poem I see the traveler plodding through an unending series of bare, snowy peaks. There is a timeless quality that is outside good and bad, cause and effect, start and finish. The experience is simply … Blank.


  1. In my commentary I neglected to mention the relevance of the speaker moving from blank to blank in a "Threadless Way". The reference is surely to the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, for when the great hero determined to make his way through the labyrinth to destroy the monster, the king's daughter, Ariadne, gave him a ball of thread so he could retrace his steps and find his way back out. The narrator of this poem has no such resource.

  2. That is, starved of her mother's lack of affections. . .

  3. I realize the above post was intended as a PS from my comment on the previous poem.

    I'm sorry for the confusion.

    1. I'm pretty sure you can delete your posts. If not, I'll be happy to delete the misplaced one, etc.