By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘After great pain, a formal feeling comes’: with this arresting opening line, Emily Dickinson begins one of her most studied and powerful evocations of grief and suffering, and the ‘element of Blank’ (as she puts it in another of her poems about pain) that follows a painful event or experience. The language and imagery Dickinson employs in this poem will take a bit of unravelling and analysis …
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 –
In summary, ‘After great pain, a formal feeling comes’ describes how moments of intense suffering or anguish are followed by stiff, paralysed periods of inactivity and numbness. It’s like the various stages of grief, where lack of feeling is as much a feature of the grieving process – inability to process the emotional trauma that one has undergone, perhaps – as deeply felt pain.
Dickinson begins by describing such a feeling as ‘formal’, where the nerves in our body sit ‘ceremonious’, as unmoving and cold as tombs. Even the heart is stiff, as it wonders – idly – whether ‘He’ (i.e. Jesus) felt like this when he suffered on the Cross. And when did that happen? Was it really centuries before, when it feels like yesterday? Pain and suffering are always present in human history: it hardly seems to matter.
Even our movements and actions during such a time of paralysed emotion are stiff, ‘wooden’, going through the motions. ‘Ought’ should really be ‘Aught’: it ought to be, for ‘aught’ means ‘anything’, and the meaning of Dickinson’s line here seems to be ‘it hardly matters whether you walk on the ground, or on the air, or on anything at all – you wouldn’t notice, because your senses are deadened’.
But ‘Ought’ makes us stop and think, because it is precisely this volition, this sense of will and agency, that is missing: one ought to be able to tell if one is walking on air (associated with extreme happiness rather than the opposite), but one cannot because of this stiff emotional paralysis. It is almost as if one has grown content with the way things are: one hardly cares to change it. Ennui and apathy have hardened into stone, like quartz in ancient caves.
Emily Dickinson ends ‘After great pain, a formal feeling comes’ by drawing a link between this emotional and psychological state, and the physical effects of hypothermia: first you feel cold, then helpless, and then you slip away into death, losing consciousness. It’s the ‘Hour of Lead’ not only because the body feels heavy like a stone, but because of the ‘leaden’ lips and skin of someone suffering from the severe effects of cold.
Emily Dickinson’s Complete Poems is well worth getting hold of in the beautiful (and rather thick) single volume edition by Faber. You might also enjoy our analysis of her classic poem ‘My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun’ and her poem about madness, ‘I felt a Funeral, in my Brain’.