Saturday, April 16, 2011

After great pain a formal feeling comes by Emily Dickinson

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.



Okay, I admit, I dropped the ball--there was no poem yesterday. Forgive me. It was the first day of spring break here in New York City and I was too busy with my celebrations to post a new poem. But it's a dreary, wet Saturday now and it seems appropriate to pull out one of Emily Dickinson's bleak little poems.

I don't love Dickinson, for reasons I can't quite explain--something about her poetry is very muted, and avoids the verbal pyrotechnics that characterize some of the other poems I've written about. Very rarely does she produce any single line that shocks or resounds, and this poem, "After a great pain a formal feeling comes," is probably as flashy as she gets.

But I do admit that she expresses a great psychological depth. I love "After a great pain..." because of its keen observation and description of a feeling that is familiar but not necessarily commonly described in the annals of poetry: The feeling of numbness that follows agony. It is a "formal feeling," one unmarked by passion, "ceremonious," "mechanical," "wooden"--and my favorite description, "a quartz contentment, like a stone." ("Quartz" is such a vivid metaphor, but the seemingly paradoxical word "contentment" is even better.) Generally speaking, poets love agony, with its high melodrama and potential for exclamation points, but I can't think of any other poems that express this particular feeling.

Dickinson expresses a sense of wonder at the disappearance of pain, even going so far as to wonder if it was Christ that took it away, as on the cross:

The stiff Heart questions--was it He that bore?
And yesterday--or centuries before?


Though Dickinson's religious sentiments are something of a mystery, I don't think this is a serious question. Rather, Dickinson is doing what she does best, mapping out the details of human psychology through metaphor, finding in Christ's assumption of all human suffering a macroscopic pattern that describes the strange vanishing of individual griefs. It is not a particularly flattering reference, actually, because nothing is really alleviated. Sadness gives way to the sadness of no sadness; agony gives way to the agony of no agony. Life without the intensity of pain is closer to death, which echoes after the end of the almost perfect last stanza:

This is the hour of lead
Remembered if outlived,
As freezing persons recollect the snow--
First chill, then stupor, then the letting go.

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