after great pain formal feeling comes

Emily Dickinson

After great pain , a formal feeling comes

Emily Dickinson 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----

Explanatory Notes

Stanza 1

                    The first stanza expresses how 'a formal feeling', i.e., a feeling of a loss of sensation occurs after great pain, whether it is physical or psychological. Though the first line presents a universal truth, it is shocking because the mind's numbness is described as 'a formal feeling'. In a way all formal feelings are day-to-day, routine, blunted and so are not acute. Using a metaphor from funeral services, the poet compares nerves to a group of mourners keeping a solemn wake around a corpse-like 'stiff Heart'. Lines 3 and 4 suggest that the heart loses a sense of time and place-yesterday and centuries ago are the same for the heart obsessed with pain. The reference to Christ's bearing the Cross suggests that suffering is an unavoidable and inseparable aspect of human life. Mark the ingenious use of capital letters for 'He' and 'Heart'.

Stanza 2

                After great pain, human activities become mechanical, puppet- like, frustrating. Feet grow wooden and go round, on the ground or air or anything, aimlessly and carelessly. The image of A Quartz contentment' associates numbness of grief with the stoniness of quartz. The lack of a satisfactory or agreeable response from the human mind and heart is suggested by the word 'contentment', which means rest or quietness of mind. The word, like the phrase 'formal feeling' of the first line, is, however, shocking.

Stanza 3. 

            This is a great memory poem because the painful feeling, which was present, has now become past. The present is the 'Hour of Lead', heavy and unbearable. But after having outlined that heavy pain, it becomes a memory. The poet uses the metaphor of 'freezing', which is both a 'state' and a 'process'. Anguish is like death by freezing in the snow. Freezing is neither life nor death but, simultaneously, it could be both. The last line is very effective in its combination of shock, growing insensitivity and final relief, which parallels the overall structure of the poem. Thematically, the poem moves from pain to resignation: note the three stages (perhaps paralleled in the three stanzas in a consequence): chill, stupor then the letting go.

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