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30 January 2014

There is a pain—so utter—

There is a pain—so utter—
It swallows substance up—
Then covers the Abyss with Trance—
So Memory can step
Around—across—upon it—
As one within a Swoon—
Goes safely—where an open eye—
Would drop him—Bone by Bone.

                                                                                      F515 (1863)  J599

This Abyss of pain differs fundamentally from the Pit of seven poems ago (F508). The Pit exists oppositionally to heaven. Its threat is such that the sufferer cannot move, look at it or even dream lest she drop. There is no hint of its provenance, its purpose, or its composition. It seems to manifest as dread, angst, or despair. Perhaps it is the sort of unwelcome vision – or truth – that draws our great poets and thinkers but at the same time threatens their ability to function.
            The Abyss, on the other hand, makes experiential sense to most of the rest of us. It is a well of pain so deep and treacherous that to fall into it would be like death. We can imagine this type of pain even if we have never experienced it. Such grief swallows up lives leaving only a trance-like state, for to look at it straight on would be to "drop … Bone by Bone" into its abyss. What a gruesome image! Pain can dismember, dissolve the cohesiveness of the psychic skeleton. We see the bones let fall, one by one, until the abyss becomes a boneyard of broken lives.
The Sleepwalker
Walter Schnackenberg 1956
            Yet the sufferer is not completely immobilized as with the Pit. Memory blurs the event or subject until to think back upon the pain is to remember as if sleepwalking or in delirium. There is no vertigo without sight; thus, much less risk of falling. Dickinson portrays the sleepwalking quality of memory in the fifth line, where "Memory can step / Around – across – upon" the Abyss. Each of the three prepositions begins with a vowel; their iambic meter seems heavy. Memory's steps are slow and tentative: first around the pain, then stepping over and across, and finally venturing out upon the trance-veiled abyss itself.  

We have seen Dickinson explore this "Swoon" state before. In "From Blank to Blank" (F484), she pushes her "Mechanic feet" along from "Blank to Blank", concluding at the end that shutting her eyes and groping is "lighter" than seeing. Dickinson's powerful poem "After great pain, a formal feeling comes" describes sufferers as "regardless grown" so that they move in a "mechanical" and "Wooden way". The great pain can be remembered ("if outlived") as if freezing: Chill, Stupor, "then the letting go –" (F372). That letting go is the turning away from attachment: the seeing and feeling and sense of engagement with the world.

Since Dickinson's time, neuroscientists, psychiatrists, and biochemists have studied how the brain responds to trauma and deep distress. One effective coping mechanism is dissociation: connections among the sufferer's identity, memory, thoughts, feelings are disrupted. Memories are distorted and even suppressed. Some scientists argue that traumatic memories are encoded in a different part of the brain than normal memories. Victims may have implicit memories of anger, sadness and terror but be without the explicit details. Their pain has pulled a sort of trance over the abyss. The question still being argued is when, how – and if – this trance should be broken.


  1. I was mesmerized by Peter Mathiessen's trilogy of the same name. Its epigraph brought me back to Dickinson for yet another immersion about age 50. Your approach is spot on. Thank you. Will plumb your depths of insight with eagerness.

  2. My friend has died from cancer this morning, how much this poem means,even now,some 30 years since first read it as a literature student in Higher Education. There is indeed a pain so utter,it shallows substance up. My loss is like the abyss.

    1. I am sorry to hear it. Glad that poetry moves in a healing way for you. Dickinson plumbs amazing depths.

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  5. Swallows, not shallows, the curse of predictive text.

  6. That's a definite horrendous gesture of speech