In beginning an analysis of “After great pain…”, it’s crucial to understand and respect the fact that Dickinson has intentionally refused to provide explanatory context or clues as to the concrete origin of this pain. For Dickinson, the “pain” provides the occasion for the poem, but only insofar as it generates the “formal feeling” that comes in its wake. The poem isn’t a meditation on any particular pain, or experience of pain, grief, or loss—it’s an exploration of the abstract “form” of that experience, or of experience itself.
Many of Dickinson’s characteristic techniques contribute to this sense of abstraction, for example her idiosyncratic use of capitalization, which seems to elevate the words in question from the domain of particular, individual experience to the universal/conceptual. Her use of rhyme, in particular a form and rhyming structure traditionally associated with hymns, also works to distance the poem from immediate experience.
All of this, along with the dense web of metaphors gives “After great pain...” an almost prophetic tone and feel. In just thirteen rather short lines, Dickinson builds up a rich, complex network of associations for this “formal feeling.” Again and again, Dickinson’s language reinforces a sense of stasis and rigidity. The “Nerves sit Ceremonious” (as formal a word as any); the “Heart” is “stiff.”
This is true even of language that would normally signal movement, activity, and feeling. “The Feet” are not only “mechanical,” but also separated by that intervening word from their action “go round” which itself might imply ending right back where you started. Formally, Dickinson reinforces this sense of mechanical circularity with the plodding feel created by the short clauses and repetitive sounds of the lines: “The Feet, mechanical, go round — / Of Ground, or Air, or Ought—.” Moreover, the personification of “Nerves,” “Heart,” and “Feet” leaves them disembodied, disconnected both from the "persons"—a word that appears only in the second-to-last line—to whom they, theoretically, belong. These parts of the human organism are separate even from one another, never joining into an organic whole.
The poem ends on a highly ambiguous note, reintroducing the question—which was seemingly settled in the first line—of when exactly this lyric voice is speaking from.
This “formal feeling” is “Remembered, if outlived / As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow —” The reader is left to wonder whether that “if outlived” implies that the speaker has herself already “outlived” it. The poem’s final line further complicates matters, with “the letting go —” suggesting a sense of freedom or release, but also clearly bearing heavy connotations of death. Is the speaker speaking from “beyond the grave,” so to speak, or has she achieved some sort of serenity? These are the sorts of questions that Dickinson, ultimately, leaves up to the reader to decide.