Because of all the images and language connoting numbness, lifelessness, and dissociation, critics have interpreted this poem as an exploration of extreme psychic disorientation and distress. The titular “pain” has left the speaker's consciousness dismembered, so to speak, composed of a Frankenstein-like assortment of inanimate materials and objects—tombs, wood, stone, lead—and the disembodied “Feet,” “Nerves,” and “Heart.” Sharon Leiter (in Critical Companion) writes that “in this poem, [Dickinson] describes this state of numbness with the oxymoron ‘a formal feeling,’ that is, a kind of ritualized ‘nonfeeling,’ fixed by custom or habit—the opposite of living, spontaneous emotion.” Others have pointed out that the three verse-paragraphs correspond thematically to the three stages of a funeral: “the formal service, the tread of pallbearers, and the final lowering into a grave” (Stairway of Surprise).
In one extreme version of this argument, John Cody, in his study of Dickinson After Great Pain, argues that this poem is an account of Dickinson’s own experience of a psychotic breakdown. However many other Dickinson scholars have since criticized Cody, notably Dickinson biographer Richard Sewell, who points out that nothing like a mental breakdown is mentioned in any of the letters or journals of the poet, or those of her friends and family, during this time.
Yet the scholar and poet Susan Howe has written several sharp critiques of the persistent critical tendency to read Dickinson as some kind of mystic—wild, unschooled, and, in the words of Thomas H. Johnson, the editor of the first “definitive” edition of Dickinson’s complete and selected poems, “overwhelmed by [creative] forces which she could not control,” forces which produced the “effusions” (his word) that are her poems. Howe has consistently pointed out the highly gendered nature of these readings—as though Dickinson’s genius is inexplicable, mysterious, rather than the product of her (well-documented) rigorous study and mastery of the English language and its literature.
And in the case of “After great pain…” in particular, one striking flaw in the psychologized reading lies in another key connotation of the word “formal”: that is, “form,” structure (in a positive sense), and most importantly, poetry and art in general. It’s not obvious that Dickinson, who chose to live a reclusive life dedicated to her writing, would value “spontaneous emotion” over the more contemplative “formal feeling.” And one could just as plausibly read the poem itself as the process of bringing the various elements of the speaker’s discomposed consciousness back into meaningful relation with one another. Is the “contentment”—the only clearly ‘positive’ word in the poem—“Quartz” because it’s lifeless and unfeeling “like a stone”? Or is it rather that the contentment, like the quartz itself, crystallized over time—perhaps “Centuries”—and formed into something of value, something concrete, durable, and lasting? Do the final lines simply describe the death of the speakers’ self? Or is she “remember[ing]”, as if from the other side of death, having “outlived” the “Hour of Lead”? And is there something of freedom, even the sort of ecstasy supposedly experienced by “Freezing persons,” in the openness of the sound and sense of “the letting go–”?
“After great pain,” in fact, is more plausibly read as Dickinson’s public avowal of precisely this kind of mastery, of control, of the craft of making “form” from the chaos of experience. As another Dickinson scholar, Robert Weisbuch, writes, Dickinson’s universality is exactly what makes her poetry valuable. Poems like “After great pain…” “say precisely nothing about Dickinson’s unique experience. The poems in this sense are an autobiography not of Dickinson but of the reader.” But whether or not we choose to argue that the speaker of this poem experiences a kind of healing or recuperation through “form,” Dickinson herself has, in her poetry, confronted the outer limits of intensity of subjective experience, interrogated them, and left a recollection that challenges and provides an opportunity for us as readers to do the same.