Study Guide

After great pain, a formal feeling comes Death

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An Emily Dickinson poem with death imagery? Say what?

JK, JK. We are not shocked by this one. Our buddy Emily packed plenty of her poems with images of death. In this one in particular, however, she might not literally be talking about death, itself. Rather, she's using death to represent the numb feeling that many of us go through after receiving a major emotional shock. Like, oh, somebody dying. Crap, now we're back to death again, Emily. Is there any getting around this with you?

  • Line 2: The speaker uses a simile to compare the "Nerves" to "Tombs." (Man, she really ought to go get that checked out.) Like most lines in this poem, there's a lot of ways you could interpret this one. On one level, it's a great way to communicate that awful, numb feeling that happens after a shock. We feel with our nerves, and if they're tomblike, they're probably not feeling too much at all. The speaker also says that the nerves "sit ceremonious," which reminds us of the way people sit staring blankly at the deceased during a funeral.
  • Line 5: This line might not immediately scream death, but it gives us kind of a zombie feel. The imagery of somebody walking mechanically, gives us a sense of a person that's almost undead. They're alive in a way, but they're so numb that they might as well have kicked the bucket. Again, the speaker is using a deathly image to get across emotional numbness. (Hopefully, Daryl doesn't see this walker. If so, they'll get a crossbow bolt to the head.) 
  • Lines 10-13: We'll go ahead and talk about the last quatrain all together because the whole thing sets up a confusing combo centered around death. Basically, it uses a simile to compare the way people will remember this numb moment to the way people who are freezing to death remember the feel of snow. The glaring question then becomes this: how do people who've frozen to death remember anything? It seems like the speaker is setting up a contradiction that again gives us the feeling of someone caught between life and death.

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