Text of the Poem

After great pain, a formal feeling comes—
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs
The stiff Heart questions, was it He, that bore,
And Yesterday, or Centuries before?


The Feet, mechanical, go round—
A Wooden way
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought—
Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone—


This is the Hour of Lead—
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow—
First—Chill—then Stupor—then the letting go—

Footnotes

  1. 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.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  2. 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.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  3. 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.”

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  4. The capitalization of “He” in this line may draw a connection to Jesus Christ. In Christian theology, Christ “bore” immense suffering in order to redeem the great sins of humankind. Dickinson’s speaker can be seen as grappling with this theology. She recognizes that she exists in a postlapsarian world—a world that endures suffering after the fall of Adam and Eve. If “He” actually did bear humanity’s sins “Yesterday, or Centuries before,” the stiff heart questions whether or not Christ actually bore this burden.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  5. 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.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  6. 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.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  7. The time represented by an “hour” should actually be loosely interpreted to mean something like “an indefinite period of time.” We can support this reading by how the speaker characterizes the hour: one “of Lead.” Lead is dense, like quartz, but it is usually thought of as common, uninteresting, and lacking any great value. Based on this, the phrase suggests that either time is passing in a tedious, boring way, or it is barely passing at all. Both convey the idea of time in which one feels weighed down, burdened, and tired.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  8. The demonstrative pronoun “this” serves to refer to the actions that have occurred in the preceding context. The speaker uses “this” to say that all of the preceding information in the first two stanzas have built on one another and led to the current moment, which she describes as “the Hour of Lead.”

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  9. Similar to “formal feeling” earlier, this noun phrase is an oxymoron, or a pair of markedly contradictory terms used for emphasis. “Quartz” is a common rock-forming mineral with a rigid crystalline structure. “Contentment” refers to a state of being satisfied and happy. So, “contentment” suggests a positive feeling while “Quartz” suggests no feeling at all. The speaker’s choice creates a powerful, striking metaphor for how paralyzed the great pain has made her.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  10. The adverb “Regardless” describes the past participle “grown” in this line. When “regardless” is used this way, it means that the word it modifies is not worthy of notice or regard. If we read the past participle “grown” as a modifier for the following noun (“Quartz contentment), then this line suggests that the crystalline, inflexible contentment has developed within the speaker without their notice or care.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  11. Another reading of “ought” in this line suggests a meaning similar to the modal verb “should,” as in “one should do something.” This changes the meaning to suggest that the movement needs to happen after the great pain, that the speaker ought to perform in a certain way.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  12. The speaker continues to describe her movement from one path to another: That the path is “Of Ground” suggests a connection to the earth and soil. The way of “Air” depicts a path with no obstacles or resistance. Finally, “Ought” could refer to the archaic form of “nought,” or “nothing.” All of these nouns suggest an absence of strong feeling and emotion. So, this completes the movement’s progression from the physical to the abstract: ground to air to nothing at all.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  13. If we read this phrase as the object of the phrasal verb “go round,” then the meaning differs slightly. In that case, “wooden” is modifying “way.” The speaker has described her movement as mechanical, and now she discusses the different paths available for her feet to move on. “Wooden,” then, suggests a path that was once lively, but now dull, lifeless, and oblivious to sensation.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  14. This line most likely functions as an adverbial phrase, describing how the feet move. With this reading, “wooden” applies to the feet, which tells us that the movement of the feet lacks liveliness, interest, and is performed stiffly and without spirit.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  15. The Feet are described as “mechanical,” which shares similarities with the earlier adjectives “formal,” “ceremonious,” and “stiff.” If something is “mechanical,” it moves on a fixed route and without life, performing only routine functions and lacking flexibility. That the mechanical feet “go round” also conveys this sense of lifelessness in the aftermath of the “great pain”: the mind and body have been reduced to carrying out repetitive cycles of behavior.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  16. While the first stanza focused on the organs responsible for feeling and bearing pain, the second stanza shifts to the feet. This shift transitions from metaphors that explore the speaker’s confused, emotional feelings to metaphors that display confused, rote movement as the speaker continues to experience shock from the “great pain.”

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  17. This is the past tense of the verb “to bear,” which literally means to support the weight of something while carrying it from one place to another. However, it is also figuratively used to mean the carrying of something—emotions, feelings, pain—that has great weight or requires great effort. The object of the verb then is the “great pain” mentioned earlier and the subject is the heart that has carried this pain with it.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  18. Pronouns typically follow antecedent rules, which would make “He” refer to the “Heart.” If the Heart is questioning whether or not he bore the “great pain,” then this suggests that the Heart is so exhausted that he cannot remember when the pain occurred. This lack of memory, coupled with “Yesterday, or Centuries before,” indicates that the great pain has altered the speaker’s perception of time. Whether the pain was yesterday or many years ago, the effects are still being felt.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  19. Notice how Dickinson crafts the subject-verb relationship in this opening stanza (“feeling comes”; “Nerves sit”; “Heart questions”). This active voice conveys an accumulating rhetorical emphasis as the pain progresses through the parts of the body capable of experiencing it.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  20. The speaker personifies another part of the body in this line by referring to the “Heart” as if it could speak. To speak of a heart as “stiff” seems oxymoronic, because a living heart is in constant, regular, necessary motion. The adjective then connects the heart to the nerves and the “great pain” to demonstrate the shock that has penetrated the living components of the speaker, almost causing them to cease functioning.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  21. The adjective “stiff” performs a similar function to “ceremonious” and “formal” by conveying a sense of rigidity or perfunctory order. Additionally, since it modifies “heart,” this word also conveys an idea of pain. Presumably the heart is “stiff” in the way that muscles become sore after suffering great strain. In this case, the strain could be physical, emotional, or both.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  22. Generally speaking, a tomb is a place for burial and suggests quiet, stillness, and death. The word “Tombs,” then, introduces the idea of death and mortality into the poem. “Tombs” are notably human-made structures that ritualistically commemorate death. The image of “tombs” reinforces the stiff, ceremonial nature of the speaker’s feelings.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  23. The word “ceremonious” provides readers with another instance of order, routine, or stiff formality, much in the way “formal” does earlier. Also, “ceremonious” has connotations of melancholy, performance, and silence, which support the notion that the speaker’s feeling is so overwhelming that all she can do is perform rote behavior.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  24. In the body, nerves act as sensory receptors and send information to the central nervous system and the brain. This word connects to “pain” from earlier, because nerves are the pathway to one’s experience of pain. Furthermore, the speaker personifies the “Nerves” by having them sit as if in a ceremony, which suggests an image of stillness or quiet.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  25. In its most literal sense, the verb “to come” means that something has presented itself of its own volition, or choice. This allows for a deeper read of how the “formal feeling” manifests: it arrives of its own accord, which suggests that the speaker has less, or even no, control over when this feeling makes itself known.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  26. The noun “feeling” has several nuanced definitions. First, it refers to the experience of any sensation in response to a stimulus, which in this poem is the “great pain.” Second, a “feeling” can also refer to emotions, sentiments, mental sensitivity, or awareness in general. Finally, a “feeling” can refer to a state of consciousness or an emotional attitude. The different meanings of feeling provide readers with multiple ways to interpret, and sympathize with, the kind of experience the speaker is referring to, allowing for a more intimate reading experience.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  27. The adjective “formal” has a jarring effect that challenges the reader’s assumptions about how the line will resolve itself. “Formal” describes something as having a rigid or orderly quality, two concepts that generally do not describe feelings associated with “great pain.” This alliterative phrase contrasts with the idea of “great pain” because pain of such strength would mean a lack control, measure, and concern for other things on the part of the one experiencing it.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  28. While the immediate meaning of pain is clear, the word itself has myriad meanings. Since we see that “feeling” follows the pain, and feelings are associated with emotions and other mental attributes, then the speaker is likely using pain to mean mental distress or suffering, such as anguish, grief, or shock.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  29. The adjective “great” in this instance means something that is considerably above average than expected. Since it is modifying “pain,” we understand that the speaker is referring to pain of extreme magnitude or extent.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  30. 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."

     

    — Tiffany Joseph
  31. A remarkable line because it accurately describes the stages of freezing to death, something that would be outside ED's experience and not even well known to doctors in the mid-19thC.

    — Stephen Holliday
  32. A perfect image of emotional and psychological numbness--ED's observation is very unusual for a person in mid-19thC.  Considering that ED had very little formal education, we wonder where she learned enough to make such medically-accurate observations.

    — Stephen Holliday
  33. Dickinson here describes the aftermath of a mental shock--the person continues to carry out tasks but is on auto-pilot.  The theme of this poem--what happens to a person after a shock--is unique for this time period.  At the time ED wrote this (ca. 1860) doctors understood very little about what happens when a person suffers psychological trauma.  More important, such a theme would not be considered appropriate for poetry in the mid-19thC., especially for a woman.

    — Stephen Holliday
  34. A great example of Dickinson's modern thinking.  We know now that, after a psychological shock, our senses--"The Nerves"--often shut down for awhile.  That Dickinson recognized this is remarkable for her time.

    — Stephen Holliday