Emily Dickinson’s ‘After great pain, a formal feeling comes’, is one of her most significant pieces on death. It highlights the profound theme of despair as inevitable in the cycle of life. The poetess illustrates the emotional equilibrium that is experienced by a someone of grief or trauma.
In the first stanza, the funeral motif is revealed through the imagery of “tombs” and ceremony. The use of the adjective, “ceremonious” emphasises the idea of how every entity, inclusive of the “nerves”, are expected to conform to societal expectations. Through Dickinson’s semantic field of rigidity, she represents the numbness that transcends intense suffering. In the second stanza, when Dickinson describes legs that move mechanically, this suggests that all human behaviour conforms to a certain duty; there is no sensation or no acuteness of feeling. In one of Emily Dickson’s most revealing metaphors, “Quartz contentment”, this infers weight with the sense of “contentment”. It arouses the lack of feeling of the mind and body, followed by a great pain. When she states “A quartz contentment, like stone” this simile of artificial life and futility reveals how after a great pain, a man’s desires are destroyed seeking no hope nor change. Throughout the poem, the sufferer is described as passive, for example, in terms of body parts which epitomises the disengagement between mind and body. The speaker emphasises the fragility of a person experiencing the “formal feeling” by neglecting to refer to such people as whole but instead, describing fragments of their body in objectified parts such as “The stiff Heart,” “The Feet,” etc. Therefore, it can be suggested that depersonalisation is a technique for emphasising emotional insensibility. In the last stanza, the leaden image of deadened consciousness has given place to the imagery of desolation. Through the use of “The hour of lead”, this allows time, body and sense to fuse into something monotonous. The poetess recalls that the time of great pain has been over and all that is left touched upon her is that of “freezing persons recollecting the snow.” This gives a sense of realism to the feelings expressed by the speaker. When she begins by describing the freezing man who felt “Chill” has reached the state of “Stupor” by stunting all the sensations and is now “Letting go-“, it suggests that the time of “great pain” is now over and man has become sensation-less like “lead” and the past has merely become a memory as “a formal feeling comes” upon him. This last line is powerful in particular due to its composite of shock, the intensifying magnitude of pain and final relief. The disposition of hyphenation, in particular towards the end, fragment the iambic pentameter, slowing the pace and echoing the different stages felt by sufferers of hypothermia: the discomfort of the cold, the shunning of senses and the final defeat of benumbed consciousness.
The unifying force within all these diversified ideas is the sense of ceaseless anguish.