Updated date:

Emily Dickinson's "After great pain, a formal feeling comes"

Emily Dickinson's poems remain a vital part of my poet worldview. They dramatize the human spirit via deep attention to life's details.

Emily Dickinson - Commemorative Stamp

Emily Dickinson - Commemorative Stamp

Introduction and Text of "After great pain, a formal feeling comes"

In Emily Dickinson’s "After great pain, a formal feeling comes" (number 341 in Thomas H. Johnson's Complete Poems), the speaker dramatizes the agony of experiencing grief. She does not identify the cause of the any particular "pain," because it is only the effect she is exploring; so whether the individual is suffering because of the loss of a loved one to death or the break up of a friendship, or even the tragedy of suffering a debilitating illness, only the suffering itself remains the focus.

The poem is structured in three stanzas; the first and third are quatrains, and the middle stanza is a cinquain. The poem is a masterful dramatization, set in stone as a sculpture; it stands testimony to Dickinson’s greatness, not only as artist but also as a psychologist.

After great pain, a formal feeling comes

After great pain, a formal feeling comes –
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –
The stiff Heart questions was it He, that bore,
And Yesterday, or Centuries before?

The Feet, mechanical, go round –
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought –
A Wooden Way
Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone –

This is the Hour of Lead –
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –
First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –

Reading and Interpretive Video

Commentary

Emily Dickinson's speaker in her masterful poem has created an image that resembles a sculpture of grief; the poet has metaphorically carved out of the rock of pain a remarkable statue of the body of suffering.

First Stanza: The Stunned Onset of Grief

After great pain, a formal feeling comes –
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –
The stiff Heart questions was it He, that bore,
And Yesterday, or Centuries before?

The speaker announces, "After great pain, a formal feeling comes." This simple claim puts a name to the stunned feeling that accompanies the sudden onset of grief that results from having experienced "great pain." The feeling is "formal."

The opposite feeling then would be "informal," which the individual suspended in contentedness or even neutrality of emotion would be experiencing. The ordinary unsuffering consciousness has no particular form; it is spread out over the heart and mind, formless, shapeless, and unrecognizable until prodded.

After the onset of suffering, the consciousness gains aware of itself and realizes the sensations of cold, hard, and stiff, as the "Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs." Time looses it strict hold. The suffering victim can imagine she has been feeling thus for an eternity. The heart personified "questions was it He, that bore, / And Yesterday, or Centuries before?" That "stiff" heart can no longer distinguish moments from days from years.

Second Stanza: A Formal Stiffness Expands Throughout Body and Mind

The Feet, mechanical, go round –
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought –
A Wooden Way
Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone –

The sufferer seems to go through her days like an automaton. The formal stiffness expands from the heart to the feet that "mechanical, go round." As the cliché puts it, she just "goes through the motions" of living, "A Wooden way / Regardless grown, / A Quartz contentment, like a stone." The image of hard, stiff formality becomes the stone on which the suffering individual tries to carve out her life.

Third Stanza: Uncertainty of Outliving the Sorrow

This is the Hour of Lead –
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –
First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –

The suffering that has effected the hard, stiff formality has transformed into an "Hour of Lead." Time becomes a leaden sea upon which the navigator has great difficulty moving forward. The speaker then concludes that if the sufferer can just live through the great pain that has nearly stopped her life, she will remember the experience as people who almost froze to death remember the snow in which they nearly died: they first recall the terrible chill, and then losing consciousness in a stupefied state may return to memory, before they finally realize that they could do no more then allow themselves to go.

While still in the throes of such "great pain," the sufferer will not be sure she can outlive the event, but if she does, according to the speaker, she will be able to look back and think of the pain as a cold, blank substance that stiffened her until she finally was able to lose the consciousness that held that intolerable anguish.

Emily Dickinson at age 17

Thomas H. Johnson's The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson is the text I use for commentaries

Thomas H. Johnson's The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson is the text I use for commentaries

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on August 11, 2016:

Yes, she is a fascinating character and such a fine poet. Her works seem very dense at first, but after you get used to her strange diction, you discover that she always has such insight into human emotion and soul realities.

Natalie Frank from Chicago, IL on August 10, 2016:

Yew that's much clearer for me thanks. She was just so mysterious she has always fascinated me.

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on August 10, 2016:

Everyone has a pet Dickinson interpretation and/or take on what she was most influenced by. I like the notion that Dickinson had mystical powers.

But no, I'm not saying she was not experiencing the pain or had not experienced the pain. It's just that in this poem what the pain has resulted form is not reported--only the effects of the pain, which may be the same for any pain, regardless of what causes the pain.

Hope that helps . . .

Natalie Frank from Chicago, IL on August 10, 2016:

Do I understand you correctly in saying she wasn't actually experiencing the pain but just exploring the effect or is dramatizing it to replicate the feeling in the absence of any triggering event or true feeling? I only wonder because she was know to be severely depressed possibly with manic symptoms. Even if not with manic symptoms depression itself cycles so isn't it possible she could be referring to feelings after a depressive episode? I can't help but think of "I felt a funeral in my brain," and "It was not death for I stood up," among others. Wondering about your thoughts. . .

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on May 11, 2016:

Thanks, Stella. Always interesting to hear responses to poems and commentaries . . .

stella vadakin from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619 on May 11, 2016:

Wow, I really enjoyed the poem and the pain that she felt. The best part is letting go of the pain. If you have experienced this pain in your life, and learn how to let it go, there will be great joy. I have not read Emily Dickinson, since I was in High-school. Great memories, Stella

Related Articles