After great pain, a formal feeling comes –

After great pain, a formal feeling comes – Themes


Significantly, the very first word of Dickinson’s poem ("After") is a temporal marker, but one that frustrates our expectations by refusing to locate the speaker of the poem in any particular time, or sequence of moments. Additionally, Dickinson references units of time of vastly different proportions—spanning the range from “Yesterday” to “Centuries” to the “Hour of Lead.” In doing so, she develops a concept of time as a function of consciousness, or experience, rather than an absolute, objective measurement. The speaker’s relation to time has been reorganized around this “great pain”: days, centuries, hours, are meaningful only relative to that experience, insofar as they help to establish her relation to it. Dickinson’s development of this more nuanced concept of time culminates in the final stanza, in which the speaker appears to be experiencing the present “Hour of Lead” by means of her imagining a future “remember[ing]” of it, just as “Freezing persons” (note the present tense) “recollect” (presumably possible only after the experience). In one final note of ambiguity, Dickinson chooses to end with a verb in the ongoing (progressive) present tense—”the letting go —”.

Poetic Form

Several aspects of “After great pain…” encourage a reading of it as a kind of ars poetica, that is, a poem in which the poet expounds her own poetic principles. Though, as one would expect of Dickinson, this is done in a rather elliptical fashion, the mere presence of the word “form” in the first line should prompt the reader to expect the poem to comment, in some fashion, on the nature of poetry itself. One could even see the “great pain,” so tempting to psychologize, as referring to the struggle of the poet to write, to achieve the “formal feeling” that produces poetry such as this. The “Quartz contentment, like a stone —,” with its piling of simile on top of metaphor, emphasizes the objectified nature of the “contentment.” That is to say, it isn’t simply a metaphor for the speaker’s own contentment, but ultimately stands as an object outside of her. Like a stone, the poem is the result of a process—long, involving heat and pressure—that “forms” it out of previously unorganized elements. The final “letting go —,” then, with its sense of ongoing possibility, could be seen as the poet’s releasing her poem into the world, accepting its separateness from her and the fundamentally open-ended nature of its existence, being created and re-created by future readers. In “dying” to the poet, the poem simultaneously comes to life for us, the reader.


Many of the images and metaphors Dickinson has chosen in this poem more or less explicitly connote death or mortality in some way. The morbid associations of “Tombs” are accentuated even further by the adjective “ceremonious,” and together they recall the ceremony of a funeral or burial. Further, one might fairly describe a heart that’s no longer beating as “stiff.” And, of course, one possible reading of the “great pain” is the pain of dying. ‘Mechanical,’ ‘Wooden,’ ‘Lead’—none of these are living things. Yet Dickinson also introduces the possibility of living through this “Hour of Lead” (“Remembered, if outlived”). It’s also quite striking that Dickinson chose “the Snow” as what “Freezing persons” “recollect” (as opposed to something that more directly describes the experience of freezing itself). It’s almost as though in allowing the self to die (“letting go” of it)—in some sense, to merge with ones inanimate surroundings (becoming cold, inanimate (‘stupor’), like the snow)—one is able to step outside the pain of personal experience, and thereby become able to see a beauty not otherwise accessible.