E Emily Dickinson

After great pain, a formal feeling comes by Emily Dickinson

‘After great pain, a formal feeling comes’ by Emily Dickinson speaks thoughtfully and emotionally on sorrow. The speaker delves into what it’s like soon after experiencing a loss.

After great pain, a formal feeling comes’ is a three-stanza poem that is separated into sets of four, five, and then four again, lines. The stanzas do not follow a single rhyme scheme, but have patterns of their own. Stanza one rhymes, ABCC, then with different end sounds, stanza two: ABCDD, and finally stanza three rhymes: ABCC. The commonality between these three stanzas is obvious— the concluding couplet, or pair of rhyming lines. 

In regards to the meter, the lines do not follow one specific pattern. There are moments of iambic pentameter, such as in the first stanza, but the majority of the lines are without a particular structure. 

After great pain, a formal feeling comes by Emily Dickinson



‘After great pain, a formal feeling comes’ by Emily Dickinson describes the emotional state one exists in after suffering an important loss. 

The poem begins with the speaker describing the disorientation and numbness that comes with loss. One enters into a period of “formal feeling” which is actually an absence of feeling. The next lines use various parts of the body to show how the cold of loss spreads everywhere. The feet are wooden and mechanical, and move on autopilot. One lives like a stone does, cold, and without any progress. Time passes, but one does not move.

After great pain, a formal feeling comes’ concludes with the speaker describing the process of formal feelings as similar to that of death. One feels the chill, then the “Stupor” and then the “letting go” happens and one dies.


Poetic Techniques

Caesura is an interesting technique that Dickinson uses in this text. It can be seen when one line is divided in half, usually with the same number of syllables on either side. Sometimes this is done with a purposefully placed comma, other times it is just evident in the flow of the words. Good examples are lines two and three of the third stanza. 

Other techniques present in ‘After great pain, a formal feeling comes’ are assonance and alliteration. The first line of the poem is a great example of both with the double “f” in “formal feeling” and the repetition of the long “a” sound in “Great pain.” Another example of alliteration is in the second line of the second stanza with “Wooden way.” Consonance, or the repetition of consonant sounds, is also present; such as in the second line of the first stanza, the “s” sound pops up multiple times. 


Dickinson’s Dashes and Capitalization 

Scholars are divided over what Dickinson’s dashes and capitalization could mean. But in this case, the dashes, which are prominent in the last line, are easily read as moments in which the speaker was overwhelmed and/or pausing for dramatic emphasis. It is also a way for the reader, speaker, and even Dickinson herself, to gather their thoughts together before moving on to the next word. 

One should also consider the use of capitalization in these lines. This is another technique that Dickinson is known for, and which causes confusion among students and scholars alike. There is no single definitive reason why Dickinson capitalized on the words she did. Often, those she chose were the most prominent of the lines, the ones that were the most evocative and meaningful. This appears to be the case in ‘After great pain, a formal feeling comes’ as well. 


Analysis of After great pain, a formal feeling comes

Stanza One

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’?

In the first stanza of this piece the speaker begins by saying that “a formal feeling” occurs after one gets through a “great pain.” This is vague, but does tell the reader that the speaker is going to be focusing on the aftermath of tragedy. The use of “formal feeling” is the most cryptic part of the line. A reader might wonder, what kind of feelings are formal? Perhaps ones that are allowed in public, those that are contained and controlled. This is backed up by the second line which compares, through a simile, one’s nerves to “Tombs.” They are motionless and cold like a graveyard. 

In the next lines, the speaker personifies the heart, relaying its question. It asks, 

 ‘was it He, that bore,’

And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?

It is not entirely clear who “He” is, but generally the capitalized “H” is a reference to God. The speaker isn’t sure if it was “He, that bore” or when the pain actually happened. It could’ve been fairly recently or centuries ago. 


Stanza Two

The Feet, mechanical, go round –
A Wooden way
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought –
Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone –

The feeling of being frozen or stiff continues in the second stanza. Here, “The Feet,” another part of the human body, are said to “go round” mechanically. This is clear enough. They move without much thought after loss. One does not seem to control their own actions, they go on autopilot. 

The moments are “Wooden,” the feet move in a “Wooden way.” They also travel on the ground or in the air or, lastly, “Ought.” This is a confusing addition to the line which is perhaps referencing whatever one “ought” to be doing. This would connect up to the mechanical movements of the body. 

In the final two lines of this stanza the speaker describes how something, it is unclear what, grew “Regardless.” Even though there was a tragedy, something continued on. Maybe Dickinson was speaking about the feet, the “way” or the general emotionlessness of this time. 

The last line is the most confusing as it speaks to a stone— quartz—and the feeling of contentment. This connects directly to the first lines and the reference to the tomb, and the general cold feeling the poem has. The speaker might’ve been thinking about falling into this steady, emotionless state and being content there, “like a stone.” One would be numb to the world at large. 


Stanza Three 

This is the Hour of Lead –
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –
First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –

In the final three lines, the specific time after mourning is called “the Hour of Lead.” Lead is a heavy, cold material, fitting in perfectly with the rest of the imagery. The hours are heavy on one’s mind and body. 

The “time,” although referenced with the word “Hour,” is not necessarily going to pass. It might not be “outlived.” In the last lines, Dickinson’s speaker creates a liminal space in which one is not quite dead or alive. They exist as “Freezing persons” do who, 

[…] recollect the Snow –

First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –

She is comparing the feeling of loss in these lines, and the “Stupor” it can put one in, to death. It comes in parts, there is the cold, the numbness, and then death, all separated out by her characteristic dashes. 

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Emma Baldwin Poetry Expert
Emma graduated from East Carolina University with a BA in English, minor in Creative Writing, BFA in Fine Art, and BA in Art Histories. Literature is one of her greatest passions which she pursues through analyzing poetry on Poem Analysis.
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