Emily has tons of fun with meter in this poem. Well, "fun" might not be quite the best way to describe it since the poem describes the numbness that comes after horrible trauma, but bear with us.
The first quatrain (four-lined stanza) kicks off the poem in a very formal meter: iambic pentameter. Most of Emily's poems don't use this granddaddy of meters that was the standard for a long time in both poetry and drama. However, it totally makes sense that Emily would use something so formal here; she's describing a "formal feeling" after all, and the language draws on images of stiff occasions like funerals (1.1).
Of course, even though Emily is using a super formal form, she still gets funky with it. At its most basic, iambic pentameter is a string of stressed and unstressed syllables called iambs. Usually, they sound like this:
daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM daDUM.
Notice how there are five iambs in that line? Yeah, that's where the pentameter part comes from (penta = 5). In this particular poem, however, Emily doesn't stick with this elementary singsong rhythm. Instead, she changes up the way the syllables are stressed. Read the first line out loud with us, emphasizing the syllables in bold...
After great pain, a formal feeling comes – (1)
Emily starts us off with a trochee, which is an iamb in which the first syllable is stressed rather than the second. So instead of daDUM, we've got DUMda when we read "After".
Then the next iamb gives us an iamb that's a real DUMDUM. Not because it's stupid, but because both syllables are stressed when we read "great pain." We figure this is a neat trick that emphasizes the violence of whatever trauma the speaker went through.
After these first iambs, the poem settles into the standard daDUM cadence with "a formal feeling comes" (1).
Emily keeps getting funky with the rhythm throughout the first quatrain, so even though she's using a formal meter, she signals right from the start that this ain't your Grandma's poem about trauma. Try going through the rest of the opening quatrain yourself to figure out how Emily is playing with rhythm.
Free for All
As we get to the second stanza, Emily totally goes off the deep end. We can't even call this one a quatrain because she throws in a fifth line. Beyond that, she doesn't stick to any kind of formal meter at all. Check it:
This line is in iambic tetrameter because it has four iambs:
The Feet, mechanical, go round – (5)
Next we have a two-iambed dimeter line:
A Wooden way (6)
Then we go to a trimeter line with three iambs...
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought – (7)
And back to dimeter:
Regardless grown, (8)
And we cap it off with tetrameter:
A Quartz contentment, like a stone – (9)
Whoa, Emily. Did you suddenly just stop caring about keeping a steady meter, or is there some point to this? Since Emily is one of the greatest poets ever, we figure she did this on purpose.
To us, it feels like the fractured, erratic feeling of this stanza does a great job of getting across the confusing emotions that happen after a person has experienced some kind of trauma. We may look placid and formal on the outside, but inside we're a total mess.
Emily ends the final quatrain (yep, back to four lines) by going back to iambic pentameter. Check out the last two lines:
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –
First – Chill –then Stupor – then the letting go – (12-13)
So she started off formally, took us through a chaos of emotions, and then brought us back to that "formal feeling" again (1). It makes so much sense to end here rhythmically because the language is using the image of people freezing to death to get across this feeling of emotional numbness. The longer lines and steady rhythm give us the feeling of somebody slowly plodding toward death, or just sitting, staring vacantly, and listening to the beating of their own heart. (Okay, it's not a picker-upper, but it does a great job of being grim.)
Before we peace out on this one, we should also note that the last two lines of each stanza rhyme. It might seem crazy that Emily chose such a formal technique for such a technically adventurous poem. But again, this poem is about a "formal feeling" after all, and the steady rhyme scheme helps knit the whole thing together even when the poem is seemingly going off the deep end.