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View Full Version : Emily Dickinson- After great pain a formal feeling comes



Cicero
04-30-2009, 09:35 AM
I love this poem, but now that I have to read it for my oral exam and have to find a consistent interpretation for it, I'm getting more and more insecure about whether I have really understood what it is about. So I will post my interpretation of the poem and I would be glad if you could correct me if my reading seems to be mistaken or if you have any thoughts of your own to add. I hope it's okay that I post- for convenience sake- the poem itself first, I think it should not be copyrighted- it was first published in 1890 and its author is dead...


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.

I think that this poem is about the process of coping with some severe psychological trauma. We do not learn what has caused this trauma, but some of the images used in the poem suggest that it might have been the death of a beloved person. The irregularity of the structure which is- as far as I know- rather untypical for Dickinson, might suggest the emotional confusion which is involved in this process.

1. stanza
The first line is a statement which I take as the premise under which the poem has to be read. After "great pain", there comes something else, a "formal feeling", which is maybe a notion that one has survived. The second line describes what this pain has caused. Here we find an image which indicates deep grief or maybe even death (and this is not the only death image we can find in this poem): "the nerves sit ceremonious like tombs"- it suggests a static state, a feeling of numbness that the intense pain has caused. The image of the "stiff heart" in line three also suggests a state of numbness and paralysis caused by intense pain. What I don't really understand is the use of the pronoun "He". What does it refer to and why is it capitalized (it is the only word- appart from the words at the beginning of each line- that is capitalized!!!)? It obviously seems to be very important, maybe even the key word for an understanding of this poem. Does it refer back to "the stiff heart"? What would it mean then? I would be glad if you could help me out here. The fourth line suggests the distortion of the perception of time due to this intense pain, it is no longer clear when it all started- was it just yesterday or "centuries before"?

2. stanza
The second stanza describes the way we act when experiencing great pain. We might try- or have to ("ought")- engage in some activity, but it is merely mechanical. "The feet [...] go round" but our thoughts are actually elsewhere. When walking on a wooden way we hear a dull sound which may reflect the dull state we are in when experiencing intense pain. I have also read that the word "wooden" evokes a coffin, which would be another death image, but this is not very convincing to me (and neither is my own interpretation of "wooden way"- do you have an idea what this could mean?). "Regardless grown" again indicates the numbness of the state that one is in when experiencing imense emotional pain and the 'mechanicality' of all actions. Contentment that is 'quartzen' and like a stone seems to be a contradiction in terms, because contentment is an emotional state and neither the mineral quartz nor a stone can experience human feelings.Quartz or stones are inanimate just as the sufferer of great pain seems to be in her/his state of numbness and apathy which might be confused with contentment, because there is no complaining or other showing of emotion.

3. stanza
The "hour of lead" again suggests the distortion of the perception of time. The image indicates that time does not seem to pass as it normally does. It seems to pass more slowly, it is dull and heavy. In the second line of this stanza, however, there seems to be a first suggestion of the possibility of breaking out of this emotional state caused by the intense suffering. It is "remembered if outlived" as "freezing persons recollect the snow". It is however not clear if this is a positive conclusion for the poem, because the last line says "First chill, then stupor, then the letting go" which again is a death image. The "letting go" of a freezing person is letting go of life itself, dying. This might either suggest that the overcoming of a state of intense pain, according to Dickinson, is only possible when letting go of something or someone that has once been as important as life itself to the sufferer and that this can be compared with the letting go of a freezing person or it might suggest that only death itself will make an escape from this state of intense suffering possible. In any case, I think that this overcoming of this intense emotional pain- whether it means letting go of life itself or rather of the memory of something or someone beloved- is the "formal feeling" which Dickinson refers to in the beginning of the poem.

Diane Havens
04-30-2009, 10:31 AM
Capitalizing "He" usually refers to God, which I think it does mean here. It is definitely a poem about coping with death, so you're on the mark there. Wooden, to me, evokes a dull, stiff, numb state, brought on by grief. Not so much coffins, so I agree with you there. And that is further developed in the image of stone -- as being cold and unfeeling and unmoving. The final stanza is therefore clearly talking about how those left behind grieve, and then are reminded of their own mortality. But it also is as you say, doubly meaning letting go of that grief, as well as letting go of life when your turn comes.

Cicero
04-30-2009, 07:39 PM
Thanks for your answer. This helped me a lot and actually gave me some food for thought. When the "He" refers to God, then one has to wonder what is ment by "was it He that bore". Maybe it is a little bit far- fetched, but could it be some kind of allusion to God sending Jesus to us who then died for our sins- some musing about whether God might have felt grief, too? (I hope this idea isn't blasphemous) Or is the "He" not refering to God father, but to his son who bore our sins?

Jozanny
04-30-2009, 08:20 PM
Emily is imagining herself as a corpse, and suggests that even this be *let go*, but she doesn't posit the transcendence of the after-life itself. *He that bore*, the line which so preoccupies you, is an interrogative comparison. She is saying through the poem, this is my Death, and was this what it was like for Christ? There need not be no particular psychological trauma. She was a Baptist, and her poetry was heavily influenced by NE traditional Baptist theology and hymns. Mortality is an obsessive theme for her.

Virgil
04-30-2009, 10:20 PM
I think that this poem is about the process of coping with some severe psychological trauma. We do not learn what has caused this trauma, but some of the images used in the poem suggest that it might have been the death of a beloved person. The irregularity of the structure which is- as far as I know- rather untypical for Dickinson, might suggest the emotional confusion which is involved in this process.


Well, the "severe psychological trauma" is death. Jozy said it above, Emily is imagining herself as a corpse.

Gladys
05-01-2009, 04:57 AM
It is definitely a poem about coping with death, so you're on the mark there. ... The final stanza is therefore clearly talking about how those left behind grieve, and then are reminded of their own mortality. Emily Dickinson writes frequently and eloquently about death, but not here. While there are death images ('tombs', 'He' and 'letting go'), the poem deals with disappointment, ingratitude, unfaithfulness, desertion or betrayal.

The traumatized poet likens her pain and subsequent suffering to the betrayed, abandoned, scourged and crucified Christ. He did not suffer as one bereaved, and like her suffering, Christ's seems as vivid as if the betrayal, fickleness and crucifixion were 'yesterday'. But unlike the risen and victorious Christ, 'contentment' in her 'hour of lead' is brittle and lifeless as 'quartz' or 'stone'.

The poet remembers the 'formal feeling' that followed her 'great pain', but lacking the glorious compensations of Christ's victory and grace, she knows that something vital has died in her soul: metaphorically, 'the letting go'.

Diane Havens
05-01-2009, 07:07 AM
Yes, I see that, and that may well be what Emily Dickinson was saying. But isn't the beauty of poetry that we can take from these poems several meanings? I love poetry, and poetry that endures, for this reason. Of course, if the assignment were to decipher the poet''s original intent, then one must. I've always allowed my young students to be freer with their interpretations, for fear of being "wrong" might turn them off poetry altogether.

Gladys
05-04-2009, 04:10 AM
But isn't the beauty of poetry that we can take from these poems several meanings? ... Of course, if the assignment were to decipher the poet’s original intent, then one must. I've always allowed my young students to be freer with their interpretations, for fear of being "wrong" might turn them off poetry altogether.

We all know that academia has long considered poetry like art or music, Diane, in that the beholder brings much to the interpretation, so that young students are encouraged to interpret for themselves with little correction, hopefully learning in the process. Nevertheless, most poetry involves communication from a poet which, if understood, multiplies our appreciation. Although we can’t know a “poet’s original intent”, we can painstakingly decipher meaning intrinsic in the text of the poem, as the starting point for finding our own additional meanings.

For me, literature is communication from a great writer that I strive to understand before seeking my own variant or ‘deeper’ meanings. Most communication, whether oral or visual, demands scrupulous attention to evidence. For instance, young students in science and mathematics are expected to gain a meticulous understanding of a text. A similar expectation once applied to literature and is gathering momentum in some universities as post modernist influences fade. Does careful attention to evidence render the study of astronomy, biology or mathematics less rewarding or inspiring? Sadly, the answer for some students is “Yes”.

Incidentally, I have twins in an elite city high-school, where the two literature teachers and fifty pupils interpret ‘Washington Square’ by Henry James as the story of a cruel and evil father preventing the not undesirable marriage of his hard-done-by, feminist daughter to a gold-digger. In disregarding textual evidence, such interpretation has more to do with ‘Mills & Boon’ than literature. Love of literature is not just a love of reading but the love of insights and ideas from great writers.

While “fear of being ‘wrong’ might turn young students off poetry” or mathematics, so might neglect of the peerless logic, insights and ideas inherent in a dazzling text.