One of the most influential poets of all time, Emily Dickinson, has written poems that are less about rhyme and meter, and more about human psychology. The poem ‘After great pain, a formal feeling comes’ is an example of that.
Almost all of the poems by Dickinson do not have a proper title assigned by the poetess. So the first line of the poem becomes their official name.
‘After great pain, a formal feeling comes’ is a poem that talks about how we deal with the effects of trauma. And it is beautifully written, with intricate metaphors and understanding.
Let’s take a look at the poem first and then at the simplification and the meaning of the poem.
After great pain, a formal feeling comes by Emily Dickinson
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 – 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 –
Simplification of the Poem
After trauma, a detached feeling comes
The nerves are composed and ordered, like lifeless tombs
The heart confused, asks whether it managed to take the trauma
And it loses track of time
The feet move mechanically
here and there, not understanding where it walks
but just knows that it has to walk
Happening like the ticks of a clock
After trauma, the mind must be strong
And remember all that happened, if it can survive it
Like people who are freezing remember the snow
first the cold of snow, then the unconsciousness, and then letting it happen.
Meaning of the Poem
Emily Dickinson describes what happens to the body and the mind right after a trauma or some emotionally challenging event that is too much to take.
Let’s take a look at the poem stanza by stanza to understand the poem better.
Stanza 1: The Emotional Effect
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 first stanza is about the emotional effect of the shocking event. After the great pain is gone, and the mind starts to get some balance, a very formal feeling comes.
What does Dickinson mean by “formal feelings.” Formal feeling means feelings that are not in any extremes; neither too happy nor too sad, just a feeling of numbness.
The nerves are all quiet, but they are not calm. Notice how the poetess says that they are still as the tombs are? This line shows that the shock has made them stop moving.
The heart is confused and beating in a stiff manner. It is hard for us to understand how we survived it. We keep questioning ourselves “Is it over?”
We lose track of time and this line is so true. We do not know how long it has passed since the trauma occurred.
Stanza 2: The Body
The Feet, mechanical, go round –
A Wooden way
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought –
A Quartz contentment, like a stone –
In the second stanza, Dickinson talks about our body’s response to the trauma. She says that our feet just move in mechanical motion, even unaware of where they are walking.
Things become automated like the quartz of a watch; our feet move without the sense of direction or motion.
Stanza 3: The Action
This is the Hour of Lead –
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –
First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –
The third and final stanza is the most important part of the poem as it tells us about what follows the formal feeling.
After the formal feeling will pass, a sense of responsibility takes over. We want to get over the effects of trauma and get back in life.
The poetess says that this numb phase of life is something that will be remembered if people can get out of it. If they are able to move past it by taking over this emotion.
Then she gives an example of people who are freezing in the snow. To them, snow gives the exact emotion that trauma gives to people; first, the snow feels cold, but then comes confusion, and finally people let go.
Similarly, trauma has a similar effect. First, there’s the pain, then there is confusion and unconsciousness, and finally, people let go and let it take over; the formal feeling comes.
Essence and Theme of the Poem
Emily Dickinson has written many poems that deal with complex emotions and feelings such as traumas, pain, death, etc. This poem deals with the feelings that follow a trauma.
It describes the feeling of letting go, a sense of numbness after the mind and the body has taken something overwhelming. Our mind and heart are confused, while the body becomes automated.
The poem is about surviving trauma and then being able to remember it. Pain, hardship, strength, etc are the themes of the poem.
But looking for the theme of the poem would be doing injustice to it. ‘After great pain, comes a formal feeling’ is a poem that describes emotions. It does not care about the rhyme or meter, but just the message of the poem.
Dickinson, having gone through a series of traumas and hardships in her life is well-versed with the feelings that follow. That’s the purpose of the poem; to give a definition to the feeling that follows as trauma.
While you are here, take a look at another similar poem by Emily Dickinson; I Felt A Funeral in my Brain.