After great pain, a formal feeling comes –

After great pain, a formal feeling comes – Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

The Human Body (Motif)

A whole range of elements of the human body appear throughout the poem, though in an abstracted, disconnected manner. The “Nerves,” “stiff Heart,” and “Feet” fail to link up, so to speak, to form a recognizable person. Instead, each particular bodily element is personified, so to speak, which, ironically, serves to de-personalize the speaker. The “Nerves sit ceremonious” and the “stiff Heart questions,” while the “Feet,” apparently of their own accord, “mechanically, go round —.” The “form” of the speaker’s experience is thus constituted, in part, by these pieces of the human anatomy that have been removed from their own overall organizing “form”—namely, the human body.

The Formal Feeling (Allegory)

In some sense, Dickinson’s entire poem is itself an allegory of the re- and/or dis-organization of the human psyche in the wake of a traumatic event. In this sense, it is also an allegory for the poem’s own making—the constitution of its “form.” It thus, perhaps, proposes a definition of the making of poetry as that very process. It is not exactly that poetry requires some great painful event for its occasion, but rather that poetry simply is the difficult process of reorganizing the chaotic experience of existence itself. Read more simply, the "formal feeling" is simply the achievement of the painful (difficult, disorienting) process of making art.

Stasis vs Motion (Motif)

“After great pain..." is rife with diction connoting movement or activity and stasis, often within the same line or phrase. These moments are less contradictions than moments of complication or ambivalence that attempt to capture both the simultaneous powerful, compelling nature of the so-called “formal feeling” the speaker explores throughout the poem, as well as the fundamental disruption of her sense of continuity of time and self. Phrases such as “The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs —” “the stiff Heart questions...” and “The Feet, mechanical, go round —” are all attempts to capture this ambivalence in its full complexity. Though they merely “sit,” static, the “Nerves” do so “ceremonious,” which implies a form of activity (a ceremony); though “stiff,” the “Heart” still “questions”; and, conversely, though they are clearly in motion, “The Feet” are merely “mechanical” and their motion is repetitive, without clear purpose or progression. All this suggests a state of being simultaneously disorienting, even suffocating, yet one that paradoxically generates the possibility for new kinds of activity precisely by disrupting the usual flow of time and consciousness.