Study Guide

From Blank to Blank Analysis

  • Sound Check

    Dickinson doesn't go too crazy with the sound games in this one, but she still plays a few. In the first stanza, for example, we get a bit of consonance with the repetition of the K sound in words like "Blank," "Mechanic," and "Alike":

    From Blank to Blank—

    A Threadless Way

    I pushed Mechanic feet—

    To stop—or perish—or advance—
    Alike indifferent— 

    (1-5)

    It's interesting that she'd choose to repeat a sound with such a sharp edge when the speaker is wandering through a world of mushy formlessness. Do the sharp K sounds somehow represent the speaker puncturing this mushy world as she wanders through it? Is the speaker the proverbial fork in the mashed potatoes? (Wait, there's actually no proverb about a fork in the mashed potatoes...)

    In any case, the second stanza has some cool stuff going on as well. For one, we've got more consonance, with repeated D sounds in "end," "gained," "beyond," "indefinite," and "disclosed." We also have some assonance, with short I sounds in "If," "It," "indefinite," and "disclosed":

    If end I gained

    It ends beyond

    Indefinite disclosed—

    (6-8)

    Check out how each of these lines begin with a short I sound, but then the next line has a long I: "I shut my eyes—and groped as well"
 (9). The three short I sounds in a row give us a closed-off feeling. It's almost like the speaker is feeling more and more frantic and caged by all this nothingness, but then the long I comes along with a much more open sound. It's sort of like the speaker breathes a small sigh of relief as she closes her eyes. Dickinson then uses assonance to continue the long I sound into the last line: "'Twas lighter—to be Blind—" (10).

    So we end in a slightly more open place sonically, which is kind of ironic since the speaker is closing her eyes. That openness does relate to the poem's final line, however, which finds some kind of comfort in keeping those peepers shut.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    You're out of luck. This—like every Dickinson poem—is totally title-free. Instead, we're left to go with the first line, "From Blank to Blank—," which we'd say does a pretty bang-up job summarizing the speaker's mental mindstate. That line-title thingy tells us straight away where the speaker's headed in this poem, and so it tells us where we're headed too.

  • Setting

    Really, the best way to describe the setting is this:









    You get where we're coming from? No? Look again:






    The setting is nothingness. There's very little imagery in the poem to give us any sense of place. But that's totally the point. The speaker is trapped in blankness that goes on and on forever. The first couple of lines say it all: "From Blank to Blank—/ A Threadless Way"
 (1-2).

    This "Threadless Way" thing is most likely a reference to the story of Theseus, who escaped the Minotaur's labyrinth by following a thread. Our speaker doesn't have a thread, though. And really, what good would it be? A labyrinth of nothingness is even more inescapable than a maze with walls. How can you ever find your way out, when everywhere you turn looks like this:







    (Dude, this is freaking us out.)

  • Speaker

    Our speaker isn't doing so well. Okay, so that was a serious understatement. Our speaker is about as bad off as it gets. She sounds downright suicidal. (And we're just going with "she" here since there are no clues in the poem about the speaker's gender.) If the speaker emailed this poem to us, we might be forced to have an intervention. Lines like this would worry us:

    From Blank to Blank—
 (1)

    That's because we'd take them to mean that the speaker felt like everything was meaningless. Hey, but everybody gets a little depressed and feels like that sometimes, don't they? Sure, but then we see lines like this:

    To stop—or perish—or advance—

    Alike indifferent—

    
 (4-5)

    So, not only does the speaker feel like everything is empty around her, she also doesn't care whether she lives or dies. Wow, we seriously wish we could help this lady out, even though we don't know much about her besides how empty she feels. We guess in some ways that makes the speaker a blank, herself—a blank person, lost in blankness. What the blank is up with that? In the end, all we can say about her is that she's in need of a serious diversion, something to fill up the nothingness that surrounds her.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (6) Tree Line

    This one's dense and just a wee bit cryptic, but don't worry. With us as your guide, you won't be losing the forest for the trees.

  • Calling Card

    One glance at this, and you know it's an Emily Dickinson poem. Just like always, we've got her use of creative capitalization. Here, she uses it to emphasize certain words and images: "From Blank to Blank—" (1).

    The Blanks just seem Bigger, Badder, and… um, Blankier with a capital B, don't they? If you don't believe us, take a look at the line without the b's capitalized: "From blank to blank." It's just not as impressive, is it? By capitalizing the B's, Dickinson makes these awful Blanks seem larger and more engulfing.

    Dickinson also wields her trademark dashes like a regular dash ninja in this poem. Like in this line where she uses them to slow down and disrupt the rhythm, giving us the feeling of someone stumbling through nothingness: "To stop—or perish—or advance—"
 (4).

    The places she doesn't use dashes are well-chosen, too. Take these lines, for example: "If end I gained/ It ends beyond"
 (6-7). They're about how there are no endings and everything is bleeding together, so it makes total sense for one line to roll over into the next without a dash to separate them.

    Besides the whole capitals and dashes thing, this poem also reminds of just how skilled Dickinson is at communicating dense layers of meaning through creative poetic constructs. Whoa, that sounded high-falutin'. In other words, what we're saying is this lady is great at coming up with awesome images that we can pull a lot of meaning from. The image of somebody desperately stumbling through a void is pretty powerful, and it makes us really feel the emotional desolation of the speaker without telling us how depressed she is directly. This is the kind of thing Dickinson always does—and does well. Check out "The Brain—is Wider than the Sky—" or "My Life had stood—a Loaded Gun—" for just two examples.

  • Form and Meter

    While this poem might seem kind of random at first glance, it's strictly structured meter-wise. For starters, the whole thing is iambic, meaning that each line is made up of a series of stressed and unstressed syllables called iambs. Though the meter shifts as we make our merry way through both five-line stanzas, each stanza follows the exact same metrical pattern.

    The first two lines are in iambic dimeter, meaning that there are two iambs per line ("di-" = two), as in:

    From Blank to Blank—

    A Threadless Way
    
(1-2)

    Then we switch to iambic trimeter, which means that there are three iambs per line ("tri-" = three):

    I pushed Mechanic feet.
 (3)

    After that, we go to iambic tetrameter, with four iambs ("tetra" = four):

    To stop—or perish—or advance
 (4)

    And we end back in trimester:

    Alike indifferent
(5)

    Now, check out the final stanza, and you'll see that it follows the exact same pattern:

    If end I gained
    It ends beyond
    Indefinite disclosed—

    I shut my eyes—and groped as well
    'Twas lighter—to be Blind
    (6-10)

    This choice of a strictly structured, repetitive meter makes a lot of sense for this poem because that language is describing someone who's repetitively trudging from one blank to another. The speaker is trapped in a monotonous, repeating cycle that she just can't escape.

    This metrical pattern can also be seen as a variation on one that Emily used a lot: hymn, or ballad, meter. This is a style of meter popular in—you guessed it—church hymns, especially ones written by Isaac Watts, whose hymns were big hits at the church Dickinson attended when she was growing up.

    Ballad meter alternates between tetrameter to trimeter (four iambs to three) with each line. This poem starts with a line of two iambs... though we could choose to see the first two dimeter lines of each stanza as being a tetrameter line that's chopped in half. After all, 2 + 2 = 4, right? (We're glad we packed our calculators.)

    Look at the first stanza again to think about it that way:

    From Blank to Blank—

    A Threadless Way

    I pushed Mechanic feet.

    To stop—or perish—or advance
    Alike indifferent

    This leads us to ask: what's the big idea in chopping the tetrameter line in half? Well, it's a poem about moving from one blank space to another, right? So why not leave a gaping hole in between the metrical feet? All in all, it's poignant to use this distorted form of ballad meter in a poem that's about total depression. In some subtle way, this break might be meant to show how the speaker can't find any comfort in hymns or religion.

  • Nothingness

    The poem finds lots of creative ways of showing the big blob of nothingness in which the speaker is trapped. It's kind of a cool problem to try to solve, right? As a poet, how do you show nothing? Dickinson never tells us exactly what all this nothing is supposed to represent. Is it depression? Could it be a sense of meaninglessness or directionless-ness? What do you think?

    • Line 1: Dickinson drops us into nothingness right from the beginning. Not only does she capitalize the word "Blank," but she also repeats it twice. The repetitiveness immediately gives us a sense that the speaker is struggling to escape this void. She's moving from one pocket of emptiness to another without any luck. It's a powerful image, or should we say non-image?
    • Line 3: The image of the "Mechanic feet" is probably the most visual we get in the whole poem. We read this, and a crystal-clear picture of big old clunky feet instantly pops up in our mind. What's cool about this is that the rest of poem is so empty of specific visual imagery. It's almost like the poem is helping us look through the eyes of the speaker. There she is in a big blob of nothingness with nothing to look at but her shoes. 
    • Lines 6-8: Here again, Dickinson gives us some of what we might call non-imagery. It's an endless plain of non-endings, a realization of that everything's a mush. It's like we're being slurped up by intellectual ideas. We're trapped inside the speaker's head, and just like her all we see is nothingness. 
    • Lines 9-10: The speaker ends by telling us that things got a wee bit brighter when she closed her eyes. It's interesting that the big, dark blank that she sees when she closes her eyes is so much more preferable to the nothingness around her. What do you think makes closed-eye nothingness better than open-eye nothingness? Whatever the speaker's reasoning is, Dickinson polishes off the poem with another great non-image. Close your eyes, and see it for yourself.
    • Steaminess Rating

      G

      Yeah, it's kind of hard to have sex when you're alone in a void.