Poet's Pick April 20
Emily Dickinson: "After great pain, a formal feeling comes—"
Selected by Alessandra Lynch
National Poetry Month 2016

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Alessandra Lynch's Poetry Month Pick, April 20, 2016

"After great pain, a formal feeling comes—" (341)
by Emily Dickinson (1830–1886)

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—
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought—
A Wooden way
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—


* Alessandra Lynch Comments:
For decades, I have turned and returned to Emily Dickinson.  She is quartz and marrow.  Her light’s diagonal.  Her music’s blood.  She’s stirred by birds.  She finds the sacred in irreverence.  Her flight fascinates. She migrates to other planets and beyond the Beyond.  I like her pleats.  Her brain’s alive and fierce and will not sleep till every angle’s scrutinized.  Every dash—an incision.  Each word—a realm.  There is no end to rhapsodizing over Emily!

341, in particular, has especial draw for me.  There’s ache in every syllable.  Image, sound, rhythm, feeling are fused.  The poem feels simultaneously in motion and stalled.  It is a crystalline depiction of the body-and-mind’s response to psychic and emotional pain.

After the tight spondee of “great pain” and the long a assonant cry in those words, the phrase “formal feeling” has the element of a flourish, albeit a restrained one, and a more overt or external music in its alliteration, as though already the pain has been pushed aside.  There is the suggestion that this pain is so encompassing that it can be felt in the microscopic structure of the Nerves and that even these most sensitive (one imagines them quivering!) fibers have a certain formality as they “sit ceremonious” (“ceremonious,” the word with the most syllables in the poem, carries the weight of formality).  There is also enormous tension in the simile comparing the inward-living Nerves and the exterior image of Tombs—pain pushed out, feeling pushed into stone.  The idea that Nerves—these tiny wires, carriers of and conduits for every sensation whose mighty engine is the brain—are relegated to the same realm as Tombs, and the large cold heft of them, bespeaks how every particular in the body is transformed mightily by this pain.

In the last two lines of the first stanza, there is a sense of profound disorientation and temporal confusion and disassociation, marked by the two line, two-part question.  Was it the “stiff Heart” itself that carried or endured the weight of this pain?  Was the Heart somehow complicit in this pain—did it, in part, create or “bear” it as a mother does her child?  And if so, when?  The emotional remove resulting from trauma is beautifully rendered through these considerations.  Interestingly, the Heart is accorded the only personal pronoun of the poem, perhaps suggesting that “He” is the protagonist here, that this is the story of the Heart, comparing this pain to Christ’s suffering and implying a possible confusion of the two.  Who had the greater suffering?  Is Christ’s suffering continuing in the human?  The shorter first two sentences punctuated by the dashes at the end of the lines (each dash both an end and a continuation—both in motion and stalled) are set against the longer sentence-question of the last two lines, emphasizing the attention to time—the short and long of it.  These latter lines take on a vertiginous quality through the odd juxtaposition of “Yesterday” and “Centuries,” as though both were roughly equivalent measures of time.  We lose track of ourselves and we lose a sense of both time and purpose when we suffer. 

After introducing us to Nerves and Heart, Dickinson focuses on another disembodied part:  the Feet (again, aptly depersonalized in their lack of a possessive pronoun—the poem is about this very detachment, dispossession), feet which would move us forward but for how “mechanical” they are as they go round and round, also disoriented—as they could be walking “of Ground or Air” or anything; what we do know is that the way of these feet is “wooden” or stilted, separate from humanity.  “Way” not only refers to the path or the manner in which the feet move but carries the heavy connotation of its homonym:  weigh.  That these Feet are “of” ground, air, or anything suggests they have become part of the very atmosphere.  There is no distinction between them and what is around them.  They merely function.  They do not “belong” in particular to any One. 

The Feet are enacting the monotonous, disoriented, dazed pace of trauma—going nowhere in particular, moving automatically, stiffly.  The odd elongation of this stanza—with one of the quatrain’s lines broken in two, creating an unexpected additional line—underscores this movement and feeling, as does the shift in meter from the iambic pentameter of the first stanza to the tetrameter of the first line of the second stanza, which is followed by a trimeter line, two lines of dimeter, and a final one of tetrameter.  The shifting of meter here suggests a discombobulation, a losing track of one’s own steps.  If there is any “growth” or progression in this experience, it feels off-kilter, inorganic, and it is a move toward lack of regard or caring.  “Grown” is a homonym for the “groan” we might hear from the wooden way beneath the feet of the numbed body that is going round.  “Quartz” holds cold opaque facets that glance off the light and are not themselves revealing.  It holds impenetrability.  As it modifies “contentment,” it feels as though the content of this experience has become “quartz”—the most static, closed, cold element in the poem thus far.  One might also consider how the word “contentment” is positioned between “quartz” and “stone” as though being suffocated or imprisoned by these unyielding minerals.  The only end punctuation is a dash that both curtails and continues the expression. 

The progressively intensifying feeling of stiffening and staticity from first line to last (as “Tombs” are Nerves that “sit ceremonious,” they feel slightly more active than stone) builds into the declaration “This is the Hour of Lead.”  Time has moved from “yesterday” and “centuries” to the present hour, and that hour is lead, the heaviest element yet in the poem.  This is an hour that doesn’t seem to pass, given its leaden nature.  The moment after “great pain” feels interminably weighted, frozen in place, unbudgeable.  Of note, too, is how the first two lines in this final stanza are in trimeter, as though constricted even more by this time that is stalled but continuing—the poem losing stresses, losing breath.

I have long marveled over the rhyme in “Hour of Lead” and “… if outlived”—the feeling the rhyme conveys of something completed and sealed off helps us feel that this experience of trauma so profound includes the great possibility that one might not survive it.  And it is this word “outlived” that ushers in the startling analogy presented in the poem’s final two lines, one in which Dickinson refers to the whole human form (in the word “persons”) for the first time.  The return to full-fledged pentameter also contributes to the sense of re-integration or wholeness requisite for feeling the Chill and letting go.  Until we recognize how close to death we are in our numbed state, we can’t even imagine anything else (e.g., a letting go). Additionally,  the word “Chill” carries more implications of pain than any of the words earlier in the poem, so there is a sense that “Sense [is] breaking through.”

The hard consonance in “Recollect” makes it feel like a cooler, more removed verb than “remember,” and it connotes a re-gathering…of “Snow,” the thing that caused the cold or great pain, the thing that is elusive, ephemeral, deadly—hard to collect in the way that it has been impossible until this point to “collect” a body’s anatomical parts and feel a whole self-possessed person within the grief.  “Recollect” also introduces the long o sound that continues in “snow” and “go.” The long a sound in the first line of the poem becomes this long o—the cry of release here is a fuller, deeper, softer cry than the cry of pain.  Thissound is different from the earlier appearance of the long o (in “grown” and “stone”), for it is unrestricted by consonants—“released” to pure vowel.

The final line and its four dashes pithily enact the experience one has after “great pain”:  the  stilled Nerves, the mechanical, disembodied state, the numbness, and the final surrender.  The words between the dashes become more numerous as the line proceeds, and we can feel a palpable release in the “letting go” in part because of this.  The letting go certainly involves losing the disassociated self and/or perhaps succumbing to a literal death. 

For many years I have taken refuge in this poem.  I continue to find new nuances in its shifts and syllables.  I continue to find camaraderie.  Too many of us have experienced insurmountable pain and been left in a daze.  To have found from the mid-1800s such an accurate, scintillating mirror of the traumatized state provides me with immeasurable comfort.

Alessandra Lynch:
Alessandra Lynch is the author of Sails the Wind Left Behind,  It was a terrible cloud at twilight, and Daylily Called It a Dangerous Moment (forthcoming from Alice James Books).  Her work has appeared in 32 Poems, the American Poetry Review, Antioch Review, The Massachusetts Review, The Michigan Quarterly Review, Ploughshares, and other literary journals. Alessandra was born on the East River and now lives with her husband and sons by a stony creek, two hackberry trees, and a magnolia trio.  She teaches in Butler University’s undergraduate and MFA programs.

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