After great pain a formal feeling comes--



Background

The Poem

"After great pain a formal feeling comes--" also known as "341," was written by Emily Dickinson in the mid-1800s and first published in 1955. The poem discusses the reaction a person goes through after he or she has experienced great pain - for example, the loss of a loved one. The poem uses poetic devices like diction, alliteration, and irony to bring alive the minutes, hours, and days that follow a moment of great pain.

The Author

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Emily Dickinson

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson (December 10, 1830 – May 15, 1886) was an American poet. Born in Amherst, Massachusetts, she lived a mostly introverted and reclusive life. After she studied at the Amherst Academy for seven years in her youth, she spent a short time at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary before returning to her family's house in Amherst. Thought of as an eccentric by the locals, she became known for her reluctance to greet guests or, later in life, even leave her room. Most of her friendships were therefore carried out by correspondence.

Dickinson was a prolific private poet; fewer than a dozen of her nearly eighteen hundred poems were published during her lifetime. The work that was published during her lifetime was usually altered significantly by the publishers to fit the conventional poetic rules of the time.

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Dickinson's Room in Amherst, Massachusetts
Although most of her acquaintances were probably aware of Dickinson's writing, it was not until after her death in 1886—when Lavinia, Emily's younger sister, discovered her cache of poems—that the breadth of Dickinson's work became apparent. Despite unfavorable reviews and skepticism of her literary prowess during the late 19th and early 20th century, critics now consider Dickinson to be a major American poet. (1)

For more information, please see these articles on Dickinson from Wikipedia, The Literature Network, and Biography Online.

The Text


Move your curser over words in bold to see definitions and possible connotations of these terms.
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Dickinson's Tombstone


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 --

(2)

Analysis


In “After great pain a formal feeling comes--” Dickinson recreates the suffering we undergo after some terrible, excruciating event in our lives. The specific cause of the torment in this poem does not matter; whatever the cause, the response is the same, and, in this poem, the response is what matters.

In the first stanza of the poem, Dickinson uses alliteration for emphasis: "f" sounds in line 1, "s" sounds in the rest of the stanza. "H" sounds tie together "Heart" and "He." This poem has no speaker, no "I." The sufferer is dehumanized, perhaps until the last two lines. The sufferer is an object in line 1; the formal feeling "comes" upon or acts on her or him; the sufferer is passive, submissive. Then the sufferer is described in terms of body parts--nerves, heart, feet. The gender of the sufferer is not indicated. This depersonalization may be one technique for showing emotional deadness. Dickinson captures the numbness with "formal feeling," "ceremonious," "like tombs," and "Stiff Heart." The numbness is a lack of feeling, or perhaps a lack of connection with feelings or a disconnection from emotions. Consider how much feeling or responsiveness is suggested by the word "formal," how much feeling is involved in ceremony, especially ceremony associated with "tombs" or death, and how much a "stiff" heart can feel.
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Dickinson's Handwritten Manuscript of "Wild Nights"

In the second stanza, the idea of numbness is continued and expanded on. The feet (means of movement) represent going about daily routines ("ground, or air, or ought"). But we do this in a "mechanical" and a "wooden" way--further dehumanization and deadness. "Ought" may be read as meaning "nothing," like zero, or it may stand for obligations, that is, all the things we ought to do. "Regardless grown" means having lost regard or concern for things or living. Finally, there is the irony of feeling an emotion which is "quartz contentment." Obviously, "quartz contentment" is an oxymoron, because quartz cannot experience any feeling at all. To emphasize the quartz-ness of the "contentment," Dickinson adds that it is "like a stone."

In the final stanza, the time of numbness has been shortened from the century of stanza one; its end is nearing. However, to the sufferer time hangs heavy ("lead") or drags slowly. So "hour of lead" is also an oxymoron. In the second line of this stanza, the full force and danger of experiencing the agony are introduced--"if outlived." The sufferer may not survive the pain. The poem closes with a simile or comparison of the sufferer to "freezing persons." "Freezing," as opposed to "frozen," indicates action that is currently happening, that is in process or not yet completed. The sufferer has moved on to the next stage and is undergoing the freezing or releasing of the agonized feelings. What is the "letting go" that freezing persons face? Does this merely mean letting go of the numbness to be flooded by pain? Or does the sufferer face a more terrible possibility? Will the pain overwhelm permanently, so that identity, the life itself, are overwhelmed by it and the individual is lost in it forever, as in the phrase "if outlived"? The hour of lead is remembered only "if outlived,” suggesting that survival is not guaranteed.

In “After great pain a formal feeling comes--” Emily Dickinson traces the numbness experienced after some terrible blow. Is numbness one way we protect ourselves against the onrush of pain and against being overwhelmed by suffering? She is discussing emotional pain, but don't we respond similarly to a physical blow with numbness before pain sets in? This psychological dynamic has another parallel, an electrical circuit breaker. Just as a dangerous surge of electricity will trip a circuit breaker and cut off the electricity, so a surge of anguish will trip our emotional "circuit breaker" temporarily, so that we don't feel the pain. However, this poem suggests that unlike with a circuit breaker, we cannot always turn our emotions back on when we need to, so that going through such a painful experience may keep us from ever living a normal life again.
(3)

Resources

Critical Commentary

Lilia Melani, a professor at Brooklyn College, shares her commentary on this poem through her online course syllabus. Her page provides a good overview of the poem, as well as a stanza-by-stanza look at the poetic devices that Dickinson uses to build her argument and some useful questions for reflection.

In "A Fragile Emotional Equalibrium" (found at http://www.jstor.org/), Jacob Gottleib discusses how the form of this poem - which is structurally looser than many of Dickinson's other poems - echoes the fragile but necessary structure that society's expectations impose upon private grief.

Other Resources

If you enjoy this poem, this page at Poet's Corner includes many other poems by Dickinson, an an alphabetical listing of other authors so that you can look up a poet you love or discover a new favorite.

If you'd like to talk more about this poem with people from outside of our school, take a look at the message board provided at "The Literature Network," a helpful website. By using the navigation tool at the top of the page, you can also easily look at people's comments on other poems by Emily Dickinson and many other poets.


Citations

1. Adapted from "Emily Dickinson," from wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emily_Dickinson
2. Some definitions adapted from http://dictionary.reference.com/
3. Adapted from Lilia Melani's commentary on this poem at http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/cs6/formal.html