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.

A New Critical analyzation of After Great Pain a Formal Feeling Comes


Emily Dickinson's 341st poem is an ambiguous and contemplative look at feelings and emotions that surrounding the death of loved ones as well as the themes of life versus death and nature versus artificiality. Through each of the three stanzas, Dickinson's poem relates the progression from the initial grief, to the insinceriety of society towards death, then personal closure and enlightenment.

Stanza 1

The first stanza in particular is largely ambiguous, as neither the subjects death nor life are not mentioned. It can be inferred that the "great pain" is the initial pain one would feel at losing somebody close. However, the poem moves quickly along to "a formal feeling". The formality is reflected in the structured iambic pentameter holding the first stanza together. "Bore" and "before" end the last two lines of the stanza for a rhyming couplet which further holds the conventionality. It could be that this formality is the hard faced stoicism one might practice at a funeral, which would relate to Nerves sitting ceremoniously. More stoic diction is used when the Heart is described as "stiff".

The approximate rhyme between "comes" and "Tombs" of the first two lines further suggests that the opening is about a burial. The "He" Dickinson refers to is the Heart, due to the alliteration of "H" and the fact that both are capitalized. The Heart "bore" something, but there is ambiguity here as Dickinson doesn't specify exactly what he bore. Whatever it is, it is likely some timeless emotion such as love, sorrow, or hatred as she capitalizes two time words in the next line, "Yesterday" and "Centuries". It could also mean that the stiff Heart bore, as in it was boring. A stiff Heart might be a symbol of a boring person as it is something they would have; it could show self incrimination and regret for not being involved enough with this now dead person while he or she still lived. Another thing to note is that both Heart and Nerves are capitalized, thus drawing attention to the organic nature of humans.

Stanza 2

The poem shifts dramatically in the second stanza. Iambic pentameter, rigid structure, and overall formality fall away leaving a jerkier five line stanza. Another strange shift occurs: the capitalization of words go from being organic to inorganic things like "Ground", "Air", and "Quartz".

One might argue that "Feet", as part of the human body, are organic, but Dickinson writes that these particular Feet are "mechanical". "Mechanical" plays another role besides changing the Feet into simple, preprogrammed contraptions. There is tension between what is true or natural and what is false or artificial in this poem. The use of mechanical is the beginning of the contrasts. This first line "The Feet, mechanical, go round" shows the expected emotion loops one must jump through after the death of a loved one.

"Of Ground, or Air, or Ought" is almost out of place in this poem as it has six syllables. Only one other line has six syllables, which is in the third stanza. Ought is an ambiguous word as it means "whatever", but could be used as a pun for "aught", or zero. The careless, unthinking manner of "whatever" would reflect the insincerity of society towards individual's deaths. The fact that it is punned with aught shows that Dickinson has zero respect for their social behavior.

Following that line, two odd lines of four syllables are paired together: "A Wooden way/ Regardless grown". This "way" being described is the insincere mourning path that society tries to push individuals down at cope with their emotions during troubled times. Wooden is used here in a negative way; if something is wooden, then it is constructed and therefore implies artificiality. Trees are never described as wooden (despite that it is true) because of the man-made connotation the word carries. This stanza begins to back away from the social implications and return to the natural, personal feelings with "Regardless grown". Grown, being more of a nature filled word, goes on to form a traditional rhyme with stone. Forming some resemblance of structure, the final line matches with the first line's eight syllables.

"Quartz" goes together with "stone" as rocks in the final line. Rocks are things found in nature, but aren't considered organic like the Heart would be. This signifies that the sharp pain of loss related in opening line will subside into a hard earned peace symbolized by these rocks. It is paradoxical that Dickinson regards both organic things like Nerves and inorganic things like Quartz in positive light while much of the rest of the poem involves tension between the goodness of nature and misery of artificial things. The crystal quality of Quartz leads into the icy diction of the final stanza.

Stanza 3

The third and final stanza relates coming to terms with the death of loved ones as well as one's own death. When the first line capitalizes "Hour", it connects back to the time related words at the end of the first stanza. This is a reminder that the event of losing dear people can happen during any epoch, it isn't limited to a specific event. Timelessness is an important factor in the ambiguity of the poem; rather than describing a singular, specific event of losing a loved one, Dickinson strives for timelessness by writing about the personal strife that anybody could feel in the face of misfortune.

Dickinson almost adapts a sagely tone for the final three lines. She appears to be addressing those that survive the death of their friends and family directly and offering advice when she writes, "Remember, if outlived/ As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow". The cold imagery jumps off the page with its capitol letters in those two lines. In addition, "Chill" is used in the final line. All these cold related words point to the coldness take overcomes one's body after death. Because death is so often associated with coldness and numbness, the diction is fitting. The Snow is the memories of the deceased. Dickinson recommends the readers to recollect all the tiny, floating flakes of memory to achieve complacency. The final two lines return to a rhyming couplet with ten syllables. The return to a formal form makes the poem come around full as the beginning started in this way. It could be this way because some view life and death as circular arrangement.

Stupor, a dazed feeling or confusion, shows the private knowledge of the inevitability of death. This state of awareness of one's own mortality is necessary before "the letting go", the final phrase of acceptance. Ending the poem with a resolution with the crushing knowledge of mortality is a paradox; death is usually fear and its intrusion is considered a tragedy. Dickinson evaluates it as a part of nature that must be approved before one can transcend it.

In conclusion, Emily Dickinson's 341st poem includes the themes of life versus death, nature versus artificiality as well as boundless complexity and ambiguity in the explanation of the feelings one feels at the death of loved ones throughout the three stanzas. It urges readers not to be caught up in the superficiality of society's attitude and come to terms with the death of others and oneself.

Note: Keep in mind this is just one approach to this poem. New Criticism focuses on the actual text itself, completely ignoring things such as the author or the historical period it was written. There are countless other way to interpret it. For example, I read an analyzation where "He" was interpreted as Jesus rather than the Heart. Needless to say, it completely changed the meaning of the entire poem.

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