Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1713
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.
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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, necessary motion. Calling a heart “stiff,” therefore helps foreshadow the poem’s later focus on death. In the meantime, however, one notices the similar structure of nouns and verbs in the first three lines (“feeling comes”; “Nerves sit”; the “Heart questions”), so that the opening stanza has an effect of great, accumulating rhetorical emphasis. Line 4, however, disrupts this increasingly predictable pattern, so that the poem does not seem literally monotonous.
In stanza two, the emphasis on the human body continues, but now the focus has shifted from the “Nerves” and “Heart” to the “Feet” (5). Just as earlier the “feeling” was “formal,” the “Nerves” were “ceremonious,” and the “Heart” was “stiff,” so in this stanza the “Feet” are “mechanical” (5). In each case, a noun associated with sensation is modified by an adjective associated with something inflexible and routine. A “formal feeling,” “ceremonious . . . Nerves,” “stiff Heart,” and “mechanical . . . Feet” all seem to lack spontaneity, freedom, and inventiveness. It is almost as if the aftermath of pain is not pleasure but merely an absence of any kind of intense emotion. It is almost as if the mind and body, having suffered great torment, are worn down and worn out.
Stanza two continues to emphasize a sense of deadness, a lack of strong personal feeling. Not only do the feet merely “go round” in a “mechanical” fashion (phrasing that suggests monotony and a dull, literally repetitive cycle), but the “way” seems “Wooden” (6), as if oblivious to any sensation. Yet no sooner does the speaker present us with these easily understandable lines than she immediately offers (in the typically unpredictable way so common in Dickinson’s works) some puzzling elaboration of line 6. The “way” now no longer seems merely “Wooden” but instead seems, somehow, increasingly ethereal or abstract—a way “Of ground, or Air, or Ought” (7). The word “ground” presents no problems; it is easy to imagine a “way” made of “Ground”—of earth or soil. One can also imagine a “way” made of “Air,” as if one were walking, somehow, with no sense of resistance at all—with no sense of contact or push-back (a total absence of feeling). One thus moves from something solid (“Ground”) to the total lack of solidity (“Air”): both nouns, in their different ways, suggest an absence of strong feeling, and especially of strong emotion.
What are we to make, however, of “Ought” as the third item in this series? Perhaps the speaker now implies movement that is “mechanical” in another way: movement that feels obligated, expected by others, or even expected (perhaps without enthusiasm) by oneself, as if one were to say, “this is what I ought to do, even though I don’t feel like doing it.” Or perhaps “Ought” can suggest the need to move or act, after great pain, in order to regain the ability to accustom oneself once more to moving or acting again. Imagine, for instance, the sense of obligation to move felt by someone who has just had a serious illness or operation. Or imagine the sense of obligation to get up and do things felt by one who has just suffered a profound bereavement or depression. For a moment, then, “Ought” might even imply movement with ultimately positive results.
Yet the final two lines of the second stanza return us to a sense of deadness, of lack of strong passion. The movement mentioned earlier is now characterized as having “Regardless grown” (8). It is now movement as if nothing matters, as if one regards nothing or cares about nothing. Line 9 calls this “A Quartz contentment, like a stone.” This line seems to echo the earlier references to wood and ground, only now the effect is figuratively harder. Wood, at least, was once alive, and ground can nourish life. Nothing similar can be said for a stone or a piece of quartz. Quartz, if anything, is even harder, more tightly compact, than a “normal” stone. The phrase “Quartz contentment” seems paradoxical, almost an oxymoron. The word “contentment” suggests positive feeling; the word “Quartz” suggests no feeling at all. In any case, the phrase “Quartz contentment” also illustrates Dickinson’s gift for creating striking, memorable metaphors. She is a poet whose use of language often startles us and makes us think. Dickinson often thought and wrote with great inventiveness and in completely unpredictable ways, and the phrase “Quartz contentment” perfectly exemplifies these traits.
Just as striking, in some ways, is the assertion that opens the third stanza: “This is the Hour of Lead” (10). Lead is dense, like quartz, but the word “lead” carries none of the associations of beauty implied by “quartz.” Instead, lead is usually thought of as common, uninteresting, heavy, and lacking any great value. The phrase “Hour of Lead” implies time passing in tedious, boring ways. It suggests a kind of time when one feels weighed down, burdened, and tired. “Great pain,” at least, is intense; “the Hour of Lead,” in contrast, is merely wearisome and dreary. If one survives it, one remembers it mainly as a loss of genuine consciousness—as a kind of gradual acceptance of mental death. In the brilliant final line, the speaker compares “the Hour of Lead” to the process of being frozen: “First—Chill—then Stupor—then the letting go—” (13). Here the dashes that help make the physical appearance of Dickinson’s poems so distinctive are superbly effective.
Sometimes Dickinson’s dashes seem merely arbitrary; here, however, they slow the line down, so that each separate word or phrase receives maximum emphasis. The first part of the line stresses two monosyllables; the next part stresses a two-word phrase; and then, finally, four words are strongly stressed. The initial word (“First) is merely neutral. The second word (“Chill”) seems relatively mild and has mainly physical associations (one thinks of the body being chilled, not the mind). The next two words (“then Stupor”) imply a shift from the body to the feelings, consciousness, or mind, but here the mind is imagined as utterly passive and lacking control. In the final phrase, however (“then the letting go”), the mind is active, but now in a way that implies an ultimate passivity, a final loss of consciousness, a surrender to forces greater than the self.