Emily Dickinson’s “After great pain, a formal feeling comes”

Image: Emily Dickinson
This daguerrotype, circa 1847 at age 17,
 is likely the only authentic, extant image of the poet.

Emily Dickinson’s masterful poem resembles a sculpture of grief; the poet has metaphorically carved out of the rock of pain a remarkable statue of the body of suffering.

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.

Emily Dickinson’s masterful poem resembles a sculpture of grief; the poet has metaphorically carved out of the rock of pain a remarkable statue of the body of suffering.

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 –

Julie Harris Reading “After great pain, a formal feeling comes”

Commentary on “After great pain, a formal feeling comes”

The images of hardness, cold, and stiffness create the substances out of which this remarkable drama comes into existence.

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 than 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.

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