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Emily Dickinson's "After great pain, a formal feeling comes"

Updated on December 31, 2019
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Emily Dickinson - Commemorative Stamp


Introduction and Text of Poem

In Emily Dickinson’s "After great pain, a formal feeling comes" (number 341 in Thomas H. Johnson's Complete Poems), the speaker dramatizes the agony of experiencing grief. She does not identify the cause of the any particular "pain," because it is only the effect she is exploring; so whether the individual is suffering because of the loss of a loved one to death or the break up of a friendship, or even the tragedy of suffering a debilitating illness, only the suffering itself remains the focus.

The poem is structured in three stanzas; the first and third are quatrains, and the middle stanza is a cinquain. The poem is a masterful dramatization, set in stone as a sculpture; it stands testimony to Dickinson’s greatness, not only as artist but also as a psychologist.

After great pain, a formal feeling comes —

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 —
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought —
A Wooden Way
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 —

Reading and Interpretive Video

Emily Dickinson's Titles

Emily Dickinson did not provide titles to her 1,775 poems; therefore, each poem's first line becomes the title. According to the MLA Style Manuel: "When the first line of a poem serves as the title of the poem, reproduce the line exactly as it appears in the text." APA does not address this issue.


Emily Dickinson's speaker in her masterful poem has created an image that resembles a sculpture of grief; the poet has metaphorically carved out of the rock of pain a remarkable statue of the body of suffering.

First Stanza: The Stunned Onset of Grief

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 speaker announces, "After great pain, a formal feeling comes." This simple claim puts a name to the stunned feeling that accompanies the sudden onset of grief that results from having experienced "great pain." The feeling is "formal."

The opposite feeling then would be "informal," which the individual suspended in contentedness or even neutrality of emotion would be experiencing. The ordinary unsuffering consciousness has no particular form; it is spread out over the heart and mind, formless, shapeless, and unrecognizable until prodded.

After the onset of suffering, the consciousness gains aware of itself and realizes the sensations of cold, hard, and stiff, as the "Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs." Time looses it strict hold. The suffering victim can imagine she has been feeling thus for an eternity. The heart personified "questions was it He, that bore, / And Yesterday, or Centuries before?" That "stiff" heart can no longer distinguish moments from days from years.

Second Stanza: A Formal Stiffness Expands Throughout Body and Mind

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

The sufferer seems to go through her days like an automaton. The formal stiffness expands from the heart to the feet that "mechanical, go round." As the cliché puts it, she just "goes through the motions" of living, "A Wooden way / Regardless grown, / A Quartz contentment, like a stone." The image of hard, stiff formality becomes the stone on which the suffering individual tries to carve out her life.

Third Stanza: Uncertainty of Outliving the Sorrow

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

The suffering that has effected the hard, stiff formality has transformed into an "Hour of Lead." Time becomes a leaden sea upon which the navigator has great difficulty moving forward. The speaker then concludes that if the sufferer can just live through the great pain that has nearly stopped her life, she will remember the experience as people who almost froze to death remember the snow in which they nearly died: they first recall the terrible chill, and then losing consciousness in a stupefied state may return to memory, before they finally realize that they could do no more then allow themselves to go.

While still in the throes of such "great pain," the sufferer will not be sure she can outlive the event, but if she does, according to the speaker, she will be able to look back and think of the pain as a cold, blank substance that stiffened her until she finally was able to lose the consciousness that held that intolerable anguish.

Emily Dickinson at age 17


Life Sketch of Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson remains one of the most fascinating and widely researched poets in America. Much speculation abounds regarding some of the most known facts about her. For example, after the age of seventeen, she remained fairly cloistered in her father's home, rarely moving from the house beyond the front gate. Yet she produced some of the wisest, deepest poetry ever created anywhere at any time.

Regardless of Emily's personal reasons for living nun-like, readers have found much to admire, enjoy, and appreciate about her poems. Though they often baffle upon first encounter, they reward readers mightily who stay with each poem and dig out the nuggets of golden wisdom.

New England Family

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born December 10, 1830, in Amherst, MA, to Edward Dickinson and Emily Norcross Dickinson. Emily was the second child of three: Austin, her older brother who was born April 16, 1829, and Lavinia, her younger sister, born February 28, 1833. Emily died on May 15, 1886.

Emily's New England heritage was strong and included her paternal grandfather, Samuel Dickinson, who was one of the founders of Amherst College. Emily's father was a lawyer and also was elected to and served one term in the state legislature (1837-1839); later between 1852 and 1855, he served one term in the U.S. House of Representative as a representative of Massachusetts.


Emily attended the primary grades in a one room school until being sent to Amherst Academy, which became Amherst College. The school took pride in offering college level course in the sciences from astronomy to zoology. Emily enjoyed school, and her poems testify to the skill with which she mastered her academic lessons.

After her seven year stint at Amherst Academy, Emily then entered Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in the fall of 1847. Emily remained at the seminary for only one year. Much speculation has been offered regarding Emily's early departure from formal education, from the atmosphere of religiosity of the school to the simple fact that the seminary offered nothing new for the sharp minded Emily to learn. She seemed quite content to leave in order to stay home. Likely her reclusiveness was beginning, and she felt the need to control her own learning and schedule her own life activities.

As a stay-at-home daughter in 19th century New England, Emily was expected to take on her share of domestic duties, including housework, likely to help prepare said daughters for handling their own homes after marriage. Possibly, Emily was convinced that her life would not be the traditional one of wife, mother, and householder; she has even stated as much: God keep me from what they call households.

Reclusiveness and Religion

In this householder-in-training position, Emily especially disdained the role a host to the many guests that her father's community service required of his family. She found such entertaining mind-boggling, and all that time spent with others meant less time for her own creative efforts. By this time in her life, Emily was discovering the joy of soul-discovery through her art.

Although many have speculated that her dismissal of the current religious metaphor landed her in the atheist camp, Emily's poems testify to a deep spiritual awareness that far exceeds the religious rhetoric of the period. In fact, Emily was likely discovering that her intuition about all things spiritual demonstrated an intellect that far exceeded any of her family's and compatriots' intelligence. Her focus became her poetry—her main interest in life.

Emily's reclusiveness extended to her decision that she could keep the sabbath by staying home instead of attending church services. Her wonderful explication of the decision appears in her poem, "Some keep the Sabbath going to Church":

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church —
I keep it, staying at Home —
With a Bobolink for a Chorister —
And an Orchard, for a Dome —

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice —
I just wear my Wings —
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton — sings.

God preaches, a noted Clergyman —
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last —
I'm going, all along.


Very few of Emily's poems appeared in print during her lifetime. And it was only after her death that her sister Vinnie discovered the bundles of poems, called fascicles, in Emily's room. A total of 1775 individual poems have made their way to publication. The first publications of her works to appear, gathered and edited by Mabel Loomis Todd, a supposed paramour of Emily's brother, and the editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson had been altered to the point of changing the meanings of her poems. The regularization of her technical achievements with grammar and punctuation obliterated the high achievement that the poet had so creatively accomplished.

Readers can thank Thomas H. Johnson, who in the mid 1950s went to work at restoring Emily's poems to their, at least near, original. His doing so restored her many dashes, spacings, and other grammar/mechanical features that earlier editors had "corrected" for the poet—corrections that ultimately resulted in obliteration of the poetic achievement reached by Emily's mystically brilliant talent.

Thomas H. Johnson's The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson is the text I use for commentaries
Thomas H. Johnson's The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson is the text I use for commentaries | Source

© 2015 Linda Sue Grimes


Submit a Comment
  • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

    Linda Sue Grimes 

    3 years ago from U.S.A.

    Yes, she is a fascinating character and such a fine poet. Her works seem very dense at first, but after you get used to her strange diction, you discover that she always has such insight into human emotion and soul realities.

  • Natalie Frank profile image

    Natalie Frank 

    3 years ago from Chicago, IL

    Yew that's much clearer for me thanks. She was just so mysterious she has always fascinated me.

  • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

    Linda Sue Grimes 

    3 years ago from U.S.A.

    Everyone has a pet Dickinson interpretation and/or take on what she was most influenced by. I like the notion that Dickinson had mystical powers.

    But no, I'm not saying she was not experiencing the pain or had not experienced the pain. It's just that in this poem what the pain has resulted form is not reported--only the effects of the pain, which may be the same for any pain, regardless of what causes the pain.

    Hope that helps . . .

  • Natalie Frank profile image

    Natalie Frank 

    3 years ago from Chicago, IL

    Do I understand you correctly in saying she wasn't actually experiencing the pain but just exploring the effect or is dramatizing it to replicate the feeling in the absence of any triggering event or true feeling? I only wonder because she was know to be severely depressed possibly with manic symptoms. Even if not with manic symptoms depression itself cycles so isn't it possible she could be referring to feelings after a depressive episode? I can't help but think of "I felt a funeral in my brain," and "It was not death for I stood up," among others. Wondering about your thoughts. . .

  • Maya Shedd Temple profile imageAUTHOR

    Linda Sue Grimes 

    4 years ago from U.S.A.

    Thanks, Stella. Always interesting to hear responses to poems and commentaries . . .

  • ladyguitarpicker profile image

    stella vadakin 

    4 years ago from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619

    Wow, I really enjoyed the poem and the pain that she felt. The best part is letting go of the pain. If you have experienced this pain in your life, and learn how to let it go, there will be great joy. I have not read Emily Dickinson, since I was in High-school. Great memories, Stella


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