Summary and Analysis
In her poem beginning “After great pain, a formal feeling comes,” the American poet Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) describes the aftermath of suffering and the coming of death. The poem is written in Dickinson’s typically opaque, suggestive style, a style that raises as many interpretive questions as it answers. It is difficult to pin down any “precise” meanings in many of Dickinson’s poems, and it is partly this ambiguity that helps make the poems powerful and thought-provoking.
The poem begins, like many works by Dickinson, with a direct assertion, as if the speaker has some clear and definite point to make. Yet even in the first line the intrigue and ambiguities begin. Nothing is confusing about the opening words (“After great pain”), with their subtle assonance of long “a” sounds, but what are we to make of the ensuing alliterative phrase (“formal feeling”), with its accented f’s and l’s? Specifically, what is meant by the adjective “formal”? In what senses can a feeling be “formal”? The idea of a “formal feeling” seems to contrast strongly with the idea of “great pain.” The latter phasing suggests anything but formality—anything but control, measure, politeness, and concern for others. If the “great pain” is physical, it is hard to ignore. Even if it is mainly psychological, it can in some ways be just as intense, just as hard to shake.
In line 2, the word “ceremonious” echoes the earlier adjective “formal,” just as the noun “Nerves” reminds us of the earlier noun “pain,” since nerves are literally the pathways of pain. They are the ways pain makes itself known to the conscious brain. Meanwhile, the word “Tombs” also recalls the word “formal” in a way that a different word (such as “graves”) would not. Tombs, after all, are elaborately constructed and often formally decorated. They imply and announce the importance of the dead whose bodies they contain, and in this poem the word “Tombs” introduces death as a key theme and thus foreshadows the ending of the work.
In line 3, the word “stiff” echoes the earlier words “ceremonious” and “formal,” and in this line as in the two preceding lines the speaker seems to use personification, referring to the “Heart” as if it could speak, just as the nerves were earlier said to “sit” and a feeling was described as...
(The entire section is 1713 words.)
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