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04 December 2018

To fill a Gap

To fill a Gap
Insert the Thing that caused it —
Block it up
With Other — and 'twill yawn the more —
You cannot solder an Abyss •
With Air –

                                           Fr 647  (1863)  J546

• Plug a Sepulcher   (E.D. Archives)

This short poem starts out confidently as if stating a rule of thumb: if something has fallen out or been removed, fill the gap by putting that something back in. But the next statement is questionable: if you try to substitute something else the gap will only get worse? How can that be? A pearl lost from a necklace can be replaced by a similar pearl. One hearthstone may be substituted for another.  So what is Dickinson talking about?
Wiki commons
When the heart is like an open grave
When she writes that using something other than 'the Thing that caused it' will cause the gap to 'yawn' apart, she conjures the 'yawning grave' – an epithet so familiar as to be almost trite. But Dickinson isn't talking about an earthen grave. Her Gap is an inner rupture, the loss, perhaps, of love or a loved one who occupied the heart. Like a grave, it bears the name of only one occupant. When that occupant is gone, the gap remains. Trying to fill it with another only rips it further.
The loss involved, the rupture, is so deep that the poet rephrases it in the penultimate line as an 'Abyss' – then as now meaning a chasm or void. It is invokes once more the image of a grave, itself the symbol of death and loss. You cannot fill this great gap with someone else; it cannot be soldered with air or annealed by time.

Dickinson wrote 'Plug a Sepulcher' as an alternative to 'solder an Abyss'. It's less subtle and lacks the sibilance, but maybe Dickinson was of two minds about subtlety here. 'Plug' fits with the short, strong 'Gap' and 'Block'. It crudely strips away any romanticism about the death or loss and her response to it. It's harsh, but Dickinson was clearly drawn to it.
To me, though, the harshness, the stab, almost, is more than adequately delivered in the truncated last line, 'With Air –'.  Helen Vendler observes that the poem 'staggers to its close'. A life and this line have been cut too short. There is no solution, no closure.


  1. Your point about the confidence of the first line has me wondering if we should read this poem as one that slides from certainty to despair, as though the speaker is assuring herself at first, then begins to unravel. That is, she wants to say the solution is simple: just fill the gap with whatever is missing. Then she realizes this isn’t possible. I guess I’m thinking of poems like “This world is not conclusion,” which follows a similar pattern.

    By the way, you mention Vendler (who is awesome), and I’ve seen you mention Farr and Sewall. Do you recommend other books on Dickinson? Any favorites? (I’m sorry if you’ve answered this question elsewhere and I didn’t see it.)

    1. I like to read The Emily Dickinson Handbook (eds Grabher, Hagenbuchle, and Miller). I have various books that I look at from time to time -- mostly after I've outlined my exposition and want to see if I'm wildly off the mark set by recognized scholars.

      After about 450 poems I started getting my Dickinson sea legs and some understanding of the Calvinist/Victorian/Transcendentalist milieu in which Dickinson gleams like struck gold.

      I do have a wish list of Dickinson books, but haven't purchased a new one since Miller's valuable 'Emily Dickinson's Poems As She Preserved Them'.

    2. I am reading at the moment, Maria Popova'd Figuring, that it has a section dedicated to ED that I am enjoying. Also many other transcendentalist. I recommend it. I am reading you nearly daily as I got
      through Miller's edition. New to ED I was lost without you. Thank you.

  2. I would add that, besides understanding Dickinson's cultural and religious contexts, you're quite good at reading her challenging syntax and elisions.

    I need to get Miller's book. That will definitely be next on my list. Right now I'm reading 'The Years and Hours of Emily Dickinson' by Jay Leyda, a collection of documents, letters, diaries, etc. that orbit around Dickinson's life. I wasn't sure I would be able to get into it, but it's almost as addictive as the poems. It's worth a look if you can find a copy from a library like I did. (I'm not sure it's worth the $600 it's listed on Amazon for.)

    1. I got pretty excited about those volumes -- but wow, the price! We have some in the library system, though.

  3. Thank you for this and for all of your blogs, which I read regularly!

  4. Susan, your intuition is stunning. Without knowing details about Wadsworth’s May 1862 move to San Francisco or her 7-year romantic worship of him (F267, Lines 7-8*), you translated this 1863 poem perfectly:

    “Her Gap is an inner rupture, the loss, perhaps, of love or a loved one who occupied the heart. Like a grave, it bears the name of only one occupant. When that occupant is gone, the gap remains. Trying to fill it with another only rips it further.”

    Fifteen years later ED had a choice to fill or not fill that gap with Judge Otis Lord, an eager suitor after his wife’s death. She said “No”:

    “Dont you know you are happiest while I withhold and not confer - dont you know that "No" is the wildest word we consign to Language?” (Letter L562 to Judge Otis Lord, about 1878.)

    *Lines 7-8, F267, ‘Rearrange a "Wife's" Affection!’:

    “Seven years of troth have taught thee
    More than Wifehood ever may”

  5. Approximately seven years. March 1855 – late 1861:

    “About late 1861, in Fascicle 11 but now lost . . . . The text derives from a transcript by Harriet Graves, corrected by Mabel Todd . . . . Todd's 1891 notebook, in which she recorded unpublished poems and their locations, places the missing manuscript in this fascicle.” (Franklin Work Metadata, 1998).