Dickinson Week Day Five: “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 —


Dickinson’s poem “After great pain, a formal feeling comes—…” ultimately seems to denote the very facet of human nature that imposes an emotional equilibrium after an intense trauma. It’s a strange thing that us humans have that natural ability to completely numb ourselves to any feeling after grief or heartbreak, and Dickinson really explores this numbness and inwardness in her beautiful poem. Her figurative language is largely reminiscent of a solitary funeral; with the ‘Nerves’ (as the synecdoche for the entire human body) sitting ‘ceremonious, like Tombs’ which is a nice literal link to the motif of a funeral and the marking of a death, perhaps the death of the feeling or trauma that had previously been haunting the speaker. In the second stanza the theme of death is further exhausted by Dickinson through an indirect manipulation of imagery that would only truly profoundly resonate with a Late Modern readership; with the ‘mechanical’ movement of the ‘Feet’ of the person who has suffered the trauma being highly reminiscent of a walking corpse – or more commonly referred to in modern culture as a ‘zombie’. The zombie-like qualities demonstrated here, predominantly through the complete absence of any human nature in their ‘mechanical’ movements, ultimately suggesting death in the metaphorical sense. The final stanza – although seldom interpreted in this way – can arguably be seen to set out a somewhat stark warning to the reader through Dickinson’s implementation of a simile comparing the memory of this numb (or ‘formal’) feeling after emotional pain to the memory of snow of those who freeze to death. It perhaps points out to the reader that we should maybe be in some ways grateful for this kind of numbness, as for those of us who suffer from the former (emotional numbness after pain) have the ability to ‘outlive’ it, as opposed to those who die from a literal numbness in their limbs, as they freeze to death in snow. Alternatively, however, the simile draws emphasis upon the purgatorial state of those who harbor this ‘formal feeling’ of numbness in their ‘Nerves’. The speaker draws the comparison between those who remember their ‘formal feeling’ through ‘outliving’ their emotional numbness and those who ‘let go’ (aka die) from their numbness which in some ways creates an element of confusion, as it begs the question: how can someone remember anything if they are dead? Which seems to ultimately suggest that lingering state of purgatory, with those feeling this numbness wavering somewhere between life and death.

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)


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