Emily Dickinson’s ‘After great pain, a formal feeling comes’, is her most profound piece on death. It highlights the key theme of despair as the inevitable part of human existence. The poetess illustrates the fragile emotional equilibrium that settles heavily over a survivor of recent trauma or grief.
In the first stanza, the funeral motif is emphasised through the imagery of “tombs” and ceremony.
The use of the adjective, “ceremonious” connotes the idea of how every part of her, inclusive of the “nerves”, are expected to conform to societal expectations. Through Dickinson’s semantic field of rigidity, she represents the numbness that transcends intense suffering. In the second stanza, when Dickinson describes legs that move mechanically, this denotes that all human behaviour performs a duty; there is no sensation or no acuteness of feeling. One of Emily Dickson’s most brilliant metaphors, “Quartz contentment”, suggests heaviness, density and earthiness with the idea of contentment. It arouses the sense of numbness of body and mind, followed by a great pain. When she states “A quartz contentment, like stone” this simile of artificial life and false situation reveals how after a great pain, a man’s desires are killed or destroyed seeking no change. Throughout the poem, the sufferer is described as passive, for example, in terms of body parts which epitomises the disengagement between her mind and body. The speaker emphasises the fragile state of a person experiencing the “formal feeling” by never referring to such people as whole human beings, detailing their bodies in objectified fragments such as “The stiff Heart,” “The Feet,” etc. Therefore, it can be suggested that depersonalisation is a technique for depicting emotional insensibility. In the last stanza, the leaden image of benumbed consciousness has given place to the image of desolation. Through the use of “The hour of lead”, this allows time, body and sense to fuse into something dull, heavy, and immovable. This expression implies that such protection requires a terrible sacrifice. Such suffering may prove total, but if it does not, it will make the victim ever remember the painful process. The poetess recollects that the time of great pain has been over and the image that is left impressed upon her mind is that of “freezing persons recollecting the snow.” This expression gives a sense of realism to the feelings experienced by the speaker. When she describes the “Freezing” man who in the beginning felt “Chill” has reached the state of “Stupor” by shunning all the sensations and is now collecting snow, it suggests that the time of pain is now over and man has become sensation-less like “lead” and the past has become just a memory. This last line is particularly effective in its composite of shock, the intensifying magnitude of pain and final relief. The disposition of hyphenation, in particular towards the end, fragment the iambic pentameter, slowing it and mirroring the stages experienced by sufferers of hypothermia: the pain of the cold, the dulling of senses and the final loss of consciousness or will to fight. The unifying force behind all these apparently diversified ideas is the sense of ceaseless anguish.