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Themes in After Great Pain, a Formal Feeling Comes

Themes Examples in After Great Pain, a Formal Feeling Comes:

Text of the Poem

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"First—Chill—then Stupor—then the letting go—..."   (Text of the Poem)

Dickinson carries her criticism of stifled, unoriginal poetic forms through to the poem’s end. In each stanza, Dickinson introduces a stylistic element that flies in the face of the uninspired verse she criticizes. In the second stanza, she plays with meter and line length. She opens the third stanza with a startling dactyl—a three syllable foot, with a stress at the beginning. This dactyl runs counter to the “mechanical,” iambic feet typical of formal verse. Dickinson sums up the history of plodding, formal verse as “the hour of Lead.” Lead, with its dull gray color and its density, suggests a dreariness as well as a heaviness. Dickinson suggests that it is time for innovation, that the “hour” is over. The formal inventiveness of the poem itself is a solution to the problems it points to.

"like a stone—..."   (Text of the Poem)

In the second stanza, Dickinson continues the thread of criticism for the forms and inhibitions of traditional poetry. Dickinson points out the “mechanical” nature of poetic “Feet,” which conform to the normal iambic rhythm—an alternation between stressed and unstressed syllables. Dickinson characterizes this alternation as “Of Ground, or Air.” The word “Ought” serves to underscore this sense of obedience to traditional forms, this “Wooden way.” The result is poetry overly weighed down by tradition, heavy “like a stone.” In the midst of this, Dickinson experiments heavily with the poem’s form and meter. The second stanza departs from the earlier pentameter entirely, instead shifting fluidly between two-, three-, and four-beat lines.

"or Centuries before?..."   (Text of the Poem)

The final two lines can be read as revealing the rush of conflicting emotions felt in the process of loss and grief. “Heaven” and “hell” serve as figures for the speaker’s contrasting interior states. Loss, or “parting,” offers glimpses of heaven through the intense feelings of love for the lost person. It is also a hellishly painful experience, and thus “all we need of hell.”

"First—Chill—then Stupor—then the letting go—..."   (Text of the Poem)

The dashes slow the reader down, so that each word or phrase receives maximum emphasis. The slow-down effect is deliberate and capitalizes on the “Hour of Lead” and the loss of mental faculties. The initial word, “First,” is neutral while the second word, “Chill,” brings in the more negative connotations of a body slowing down and losing function. This “Freezing” process is compounded by the next two words, “then Stupor,” which extends the process from the physical to the mental, or a shift from the body to the feelings. The mind becomes passive and lacks control. However, at the end, the mind performs an active function: it lets go, suggesting a final loss of consciousness, a surrender to forces greater than the self.

"Remembered, if outlived,..."   (Text of the Poem)

The idea of death was introduced in the first stanza with “Tombs.” Death again appears here. The speaker contrasts the intensity of the “great pain” with the debilitating weariness of “the Hour of Lead.” She then follows this with the condition, “Remembered, if outlived,” which suggests that she can remember the “Hour of Lead” if she survives it, and even then, she will only remember it as a loss of consciousness, as an acceptance of mental death.

"First—Chill—then Stupor—then the letting go—..."   (Text of the Poem)

The final line of the poem details three stages.  These stages mirror the stanzas of the poem as a whole.  Stanza one corresponds to "Chill" (formality, ceremony, "stiff Heart"). The second stanza corresponds with "Stupor," as Dickinson describes the "mechanical" or numb action of "Feet" going through the motion of walking. The final stanza corresponds to "letting go"--the exit from the poem itself and the distance from the "Hour of Lead."


"The Feet, mechanical, go round..."   (Text of the Poem)

Here, Dickinson describes how someone continues to carry out tasks on auto-pilot during the aftermath of a mental shock. The theme of this poem—what happens to a person after a shock—is unique for this time period. In 1862, when Dickinson wrote this poem, doctors understood very little about what happens when a person suffers from psychological trauma. More notably, such a theme would not be considered appropriate for poets, specifically female poets, to write about in the 19th century.

"Nerves..."   (Text of the Poem)

These lines demonstrate Dickinson's modern thinking who recognized that after a psychological shock, our senses—"The Nerves"—often shut down for awhile.

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