As is so often the case with Emily Dickinson’s poetry, the first line is obscure, striking, and contains the germ of the rest of the poem. It simultaneously forces the reader to want to know more about this ambiguous “great pain,” and sets up the frustration of this desire that will occur throughout the rest of the poem. Despite the fact that the “great pain” appears first, and so presents as the primary claim on our attention, syntactically Dickinson has placed it in a dependent clause—the “formal feeling” is, in fact, the main event, the subject of the only verb in the line: "comes." And though its obscurity in terms of meaning tends to monopolize our attention on first reading, the sonic patterning and rhythm of Dickinson’s opening line are just as rich, nuanced, and foundational for the rest of the poem. Reading the line out loud reveals a dramatic shift in sound and prosody on either side of the caesura marked by a comma in the middle of the line. In terms of consonants, the phrase “After great pain” is dominated by the hard “t” “g” and “p” sounds that occur in all three words. In terms of vowels, every stressed syllable in the phrase contains a strong, nasal “a.” Additionally, the rhythm of the first half of the line is highly irregular. “After” (with the stress naturally falling on the first syllable, with the second unstressed) comprises what’s called a trochee. And though prosody is always somewhat subjective, it’s difficult to hear the words “great pain” as anything other than two heavily stressed syllables (what’s called a spondee). All this is to say that when the phrase “a formal feeling comes” ends, it comes bearing a sense of ease, almost relief. The words fall (almost) neatly into iambs (a form-al feel-ing comes) with the dash providing, perhaps, the missing unstressed syllable at the end. All of this evidence cuts against a straightforwardly negative reading of the “formal feeling,” as well as any reading that places an investigation of the elusive “great pain” at the center of the poem.
“A Wooden way Regardless grown, A Quartz contentment, like a stone —”
The heavy use of interconnected simile and metaphor is crucial to the aura of intriguing obscurity of Dickinson’s short poem—the sense we get of its being packed with some hidden meaning. As the poem progresses, the metaphorical language starts to become disconnected even from its particular referent. It’s not quite clear which “This” is “the Hour of Lead,” or what exactly is being compared to “A Wooden way,” or “A Quartz contentment, like a stone.” That final phrase is the culmination of this progressive movement of the poem away from reality and into the realm of abstraction and metaphor, with the ostensibly metaphorical “Quartz contentment” itself becoming the object of the simile “like a stone.”
“As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow — First — Chill — then Stupor — then the letting go —”
This, the last line of Dickinson’s poem, is just as layered as her first one. It reads, or demands to be read, as a description of death, specifically of being frozen to death. However we are told specifically that this is an experience “remembered, if outlived.” What, then, is “the letting go”? These three steps (chill, stupor, letting go), arguably stand in for the three moments of the poem: the pain, the “formal feeling,” and then this, the last line, both describing the “letting go” and enacting it (or, perhaps the writing of the poem is, as a whole, a way of letting go). Sonically, the line conveys a haunting openness: the only two rhymed lines in the poem that end with open vowel sounds, which also faintly echo the end-rhyme of the previous stanza (‘grown’/’stone’), and contrast sharply with the hard “d” sounds that bring the previous two lines to a sharp close (‘Lead’/‘outlived’). If what’s being described is a kind of dying, then it’s one that appears to open up onto new possibilities, rather than close them off.
After great pain, a formal feeling comes – Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for After great pain, a formal feeling comes – is a great
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