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 “com[ing]” in a “formal” way. Dickinson’s use of personification (a frequent technique in her poetry) often gives her works the flavor a little parables, as if she were explaining, in ways accessible to children, issues of great importance to all humans, including adults. Her use of parables, personification, and phrasing that seems simple but is actually complex all help make her poetry resemble that of the great seventeenth-century religious poet George Herbert, whose works we know she read.
Because of its confusing syntax, line 3 makes it difficult, at first, to know to whom the word “He” refers. Presumably it refers to the “Heart” itself, as if the heart is asking a question about itself/himself. It is as if the heart is so exhausted from suffering that he is not even sure that it was “He” himself who bore the “great pain.” In fact, the heart even seems unsure when, exactly, he bore the pain (“‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?” ). Yet the phrasing will also remind many readers of Christ, who himself “bore” “great pain” “Centuries before.” Christ bore his pain, however, so that someday all pain might cease for those redeemed from sin and saved from death. Dickinson’s speaker, unfortunately, still lives in the postlapsarian world—the world after the fall of Adam and Eve. That world, as this poem reminds us, is a world still brimming with suffering and mortality.
Presumably the heart is “stiff” in the way that most muscles become stiff after suffering great strain—in this case, strain that could be either physical, or emotional, or both. To speak of a heart as “stiff” seems paradoxical, since the heart is an organ of the body that is in constant, regular,...
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