Elements of despair evident from the inner workings of Emily Dickinson are present in her poem, “After Great Pain, A Formal Feeling Comes--.” Emily Dickinson led a difficult life which left her alone. These feelings of sorrow and isolation have produced works by Dickinson which question human existence and thought. Such works include the theme of despair which is inextricably related to spiritual strivings and misgivings. They lead inevitably to her thematic concern with man’s knowledge of death and his dream of immortality, directly relevant to “After Great Pain
, A Formal Feeling
Comes--.”In this poem, Emily Dickinson renders the extinction of consciousness by pain in terms of a funeral. By paraphrasing the first stanza,After great pain, a formal feeling comes--The Nerves sits ceremonious, like Tombs--The stiff Heart, questions was it He, that bore,And Yesterday, or Centuries before?The reader perceives the first of three stages of a funeral ceremony, the formal service. After the onset of suffering through death, the presence of finality through a funeral rises.
The second stanza brings with it the second stage of the ceremony, carrying off the casket by pallbearers.The Feet, mechanical, go round--A wooden wayOf Ground, or Air, or Ought--Regardless grown,A Quartz contentment, like a stone--The feet of the pallbearers work rhythmically and mechanically, performing their duty. The final stanza includes the final stage of a funeral,the burial.This is the Hour of Lead--Remembered, if outlived,As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow--First--Chill--then Stupor--then the letting go
-- The reader notes that this is the time of finality, and of parting with the deceased. It is also a time of final recollections, and of healing.In an interpretation of this poem, Dickinson is neither speaking of the persona, or the funeral ritual, but instead of the state of mind at death. This perception includes the premise of one who has lost all sense of identity.
The various parts of the anatomy noted in the poem, such as the nerves, heart, and feet, are no longer part of one central being,but now moving through the acts of a meaningless ceremony. In essence, they are lifeless forms enacted in a trance. As the idea of a funeral ceremony subsides, the once living body’s form emerges. The “formal feeling” that comes after a great pain is actually no pain at all, but instead the loss of form, time, and space.
Throughout “After Great Pain, A Formal Feeling Comes--”, Dickinson uses many forms of connotation, such as imagery, symbolism, and irony. For instance, Dickinson presents a vivid image of the funeral service occurring. The mechanical movements of pallbearers are vividly portrayed by her use of resplendent language. Under the same accord, the line, “This is the Hour of Lead--” brings images of ultimate finality and closure to the reader by portraying the burial. Symbolism is also evident in that Dickinson states, “A Quartz contentment, like a stone--”, is actually referring to the serenity that follows great suffering. Irony is exhibited in the “formal feeling,” which is not pain but the loss of existence. In summation, it is through the thematic depiction of despair in “After Great Pain, A Formal Feeling Comes--” that Dickinson manifests the state of mind at a loss of presence. Through her use of vivid, straightforward language, Dickinson captured my attention, and effectively displayed the suffering and despondency when you leave the earth.