Analysis of Poem "After great pain, a formal feeling comes" by Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson's "After great pain, a formal feeling comes"
"After great pain, a formal feeling comes" is a short poem on the subject of pain, one of many Emily Dickinson wrote in 1862, an important year for the prolific, reclusive poet.
Biographers point to a personal crisis around this time, perhaps related to a failed love affair or an outbreak of severe anxiety, which led to increased loneliness for the young woman from Amherst, Massachusetts.
Her interest in the American Civil war was also strong. She would have been aware of the many locally raised soldiers killed in what for her was an 'oblique' struggle.
Little wonder that her poetic themes reflect the pain, despair and terror experienced by others, and increasingly, by herself.
Her poetry explores these difficult themes with wit, irony and a unique ambiguity created through use of mythological, biblical and universal symbols. Add to that vivid imagery, all wrapped up in an erratic syntax, and there is the recipe for a unique form of poetry.
It is claimed that the word pain occurs in 50 of her poems so there is no doubt that she had a need to express the accumulative internal anguish through her verse.
The poem is typically short, starting with that formidable first line which seems to demand an equally profound response from the lines that follow. Basically, the poem seeks to express, through metaphor, image and figurative language, what it is for someone to experience that all-numbing 'formal feeling.'
"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 -
A Wooden way
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought -
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 -
After Great Pain is a poem that concentrates on mental anguish, grief and perhaps sorrow. It explores internal pain whilst naming actual anatomical parts such as the nerves, the feet and the heart.
Emily Dickinson wrote a great deal of this type of poetry, focusing on pain, sorrow, grief, terror and death. Her sensitivity and shyness eventually resulted in a rather reclusive lifestyle but she somehow managed to put all of her inner energies into her poems. The pain of being alone undoubtedly fuelled her creativity.
This poem is her expression of hidden pain, the sort that hurts inside, a kind of pain of the soul. It could be caused through death of a loved one, loss of a love, trauma, empathy with those who are suffering needlessly.
The poem can be split into three:
- Stanza 1 - internal reaction to suffering and time (post trauma stress)
- Stanza 2 - physical reaction in nature (paralysis)
- Stanza 3 - unresolved ending (existential crisis)
The formal feeling in the first stanza is the key to what will follow: a bodily numbness where the nerves are personified as they 'sit ceremonious' like formal people at a service but here portrayed in a simile as Tombs, containers of the dead, cold and heavy.
Whilst the nerves are likened to what might be biblical tombs, locked away in the dark, the stiff heart is able to pose a strange, double edged question. Firstly, who is the anonymous male, 'He'? Is it a reference to Christ and the cross (He that bore), suggesting the idea of burden, of sins taken on board, of outrageous death, of religious feeling being aligned with the formality.
And secondly, there is the confusion in time: 24 hours ago or hundreds of years ago? The implication is that someone, the sufferer, isn't able to discern just who they are; they have lost track of time and with it, their ability to identify with the here and now.
In the first stanza the scene is set. The language points to this lack of true emotional feeling - formal, ceremonious, Tombs, stiff, bore....words that are all aspects of heavy coldness, of lack of warmth. Pain has numbed and puzzled.
The second stanza continues this idea of the body becoming rigid and inflexible, without social purpose. Specifically, the feet, that part of the anatomy that carry the weight, become 'mechanical' - an odd word to use - as if a human could become like a clockwork toy, a robot, a zombie.
Note the line length altering to accommodate this strange notion. From the pentameter of the first quatrain to the short dimeter, the wooden walking is a symptom of inner pain manifesting, affecting the whole movement of this unfortunate victim.
Yet perversely, ironically, there is a contentment - a settled expression - it is Quartz. This line 9 is surely the odd one out for the use of Quartz, a crystal that is hard, inert as stone.
This is strong imagery. The sense that this individual, whoever it may be, is gradually seizing up, tightening inside, becoming cold and unfeeling, grows and grows in the first two stanzas.
Stanza 3 is a kind of conclusion to what has gone before. Note the opening line:
This is the Hour of Lead
As if all that has gone on previously has now led to this point in time, the heaviest burden to bear so to speak, is here.
Lead is the heaviest of common metals; it is dull and difficult to work with, unless you have a hammer and plenty of strength. It gives a feeling deadweight and numbness.
If it can be remembered (that is, if the person doesn't die in the meantime) it's a little like when you're out in the freezing snow getting chilled, losing all sense of touch, falling into a kind of deadly trance.
Note that last line, full of dashes, as if the person is out there slowly trudging through the cold, hardly able to go on, until, in the end, they let go. In other words, they lose all of their feeling.
Whether or not they die physically or psychically is up to the reader. The ending is open, finished off with a dash. Perhaps Emily Dickinson wasn't too sure herself what had happened to the unknown individual who experienced this formal feeling?
"After great pain, a formal feeling comes" is a rhyming poem with 13 lines split into 3 stanzas of 4,5 and 4 lines respectively.
Meter (Metre in British English)
This poem has a varied rhythm to it, traditional lines with ten syllables (pentameter) giving way to much shorter lines (dimeter) which suggests that there is an unpredictable element at play. The reader has to adjust breath and focus, especially in stanzas two and three.
Stanza two in particular is a mix of tetrameter, trimeter and dimeter, the syntax bringing pause after pause with comma and dash, resulting in a stop-start rhythm, a going nowhere.
Note the end of the poem reverts back to two ten syllable lines, but both are a little odd: line 12 has a puzzling comma separating clauses, whilst the last line is chocked full - of - dashes, forcing the reader to focus fully on each word.
A predominantly iambic rhythm gives the first stanza a familiar pace overall, even if a trochee and spondee initiate proceedings:
After / great pain, / a for / mal feel / ing comes -
Many critics miss this unusual opening, simply stating that the whole poem follows a traditional iambic meter. It most certainly does not. The stresses in the first three words reflect the strong effects of the pain, after which things settle down.
- Note that, throughout the poem, different rhythms are set up through varying meter, line length and syntax, including conventional punctuation such as commas, and, typical of Emily Dickinson, her unusual preference for dashes.
This poem does have rhyme, both slant and full. Slant rhyme is associated with near harmony, where sounds do not quite match, creating some dissonance. For example: comes/Tombs, Lead/outlived.
Full rhyme brings some harmony into play, creating a tight bond, as in bore/before, grown/stone, Snow/go.
Both types of rhyme are found in couplets (two lines), the slant at the beginning of stanzas one and three, the full at the end of each stanza. You could say that the slant rhymes signify unease or tension, whilst the full rhymes bring energies together and form a solid base.
Metaphor and Simile
Metaphors substitute one thing for another, whilst similes compare. So for example in stanza two, line 9 :
A Quartz contentment, like a stone -
Here the contentment is Quartz, that hard, shiny crystal mineral. And it is compared to a stone, reinforcing the idea of hardness and cold stasis.
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© 2017 Andrew Spacey