Since almost none of Emily Dickinson’s huge body of work was published during her lifetime, it’s impossible to be certain exactly how she would have wanted her poems—many of which have several variants—to appear in print. This means that the editing and publishing of her poems have been the subject of ongoing critical debate and controversy. Compare the versions of “After great pain” that appear in the edition of Dickinson’s poems edited by Thomas H. Johnson (1955) and that edited by Ralph W. Franklin (1998), including consideration of the manuscript page on which both are based, all of which are available online in the Related Links section. In your essay, you may choose one of the following approaches: 1) Argue for the superior accuracy or quality of one of the variants; 2) Assess in detail how the differences between the two versions affects the meaning of the poem; or 3) Present an argument for or against the importance of attempting to be faithful to the poet’s intentions, including close reading of “After great pain” among your evidence.
It’s a widely accepted fact that Emily Dickinson’s status as a woman writing outside established cultural institutions contributed greatly to her difficulty in seeing her work published—in a form acceptable to her—during her lifetime. Many critics, such as Susan Howe, have also argued that gendered assumptions have continued to play a role in how Dickinson’s work is read, and edited/presented (all the “definitive” editions of her poems thus far have been edited by men), to this day. Using at least 4-5 critical sources, write an essay that considers how gendered assumptions, and the critique of them, have shaped interpretations of Dickinson in general, and “After great pain” in particular.
The deep ambiguity of the “formal feeling” described in Dickinson’s poem allows for widely divergent readings, not just of that phrase itself but of the poem as a whole. While some have seen it as a wholly “negative” descriptor—dead, mechanical, lifeless, etc.—it’s also possible to read the “formal feeling” as a peculiarly generative state, perhaps even fundamental to the poet’s art. Write an essay that addresses the following questions: Does the speaker offer a clear judgment, positive or negative, about the value of the “formal feeling” and, if so, what is it? How does this judgment, or the refusal to offer one, shape our reading of the poem?
Though her prosody, rhythm, and rhyming structure, as well as her use of punctuation, are by traditional standards highly “irregular,” Dickinson’s poems are nonetheless meticulously constructed. Write an essay that develops an analysis of “After great pain” specifically out of Dickinson’s use of meter, sound, and rhyme. Be sure to specify how consideration of these aspects of the work allow for insights, or open up the possibility for alternative readings, that wouldn’t otherwise be accessible.
In some sense, the entirety of “After great pain” is made up of metaphorical and/or allegorical language—we are not meant to understand any of it (besides perhaps the already passed “great pain”) as “literally” happening. Through close analysis of some of the particular metaphors Dickinson deploys, discuss how this overall approach shapes the meaning of “After great pain.” How would the poem be different if Dickinson had grounded it in a concrete scene, or described her “formal feeling” with more straightforwardly literal language?