Study Guide

After great pain, a formal feeling comes Suffering

By Emily Dickinson


After great pain, a formal feeling comes – (1)

The opening line contrasts two different kinds of suffering. First, there's the more obvious one: "the great pain," which is whatever the initial trauma is. Then comes the more insidious pain: the "formal feeling," which is the numbness that happens once the original trauma has passed. The speaker does such a great job of describing the torture of this numbness, we almost wonder if it's worse than the original trauma, itself. What do you think?

The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –
The stiff Heart questions 'was it He, that bore,' (2-3)

These lines personify two parts of the body: nerves and heart. We see that the kind of suffering the speaker is talking about isn't physical pain. The nerves are so out of it that they're like tombs, and the heart isn't even sure who felt the pain. There's also a lot of ambiguity around the "He" in line 3. Is the Heart referring to itself? Or is it maybe talking about Jesus? The capitalized H in "He" has made a bunch of scholarly types think the latter is true. If so, it only opens up a lot more questions. Is it Jesus that now feels numb? Is it somebody now feeling numb over the suffering of Jesus? Or is the speaker using Jesus as symbol for the suffering of us all? Thanks, Emily; now we're going to be up all night thinking about that.

As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –
First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go – (12-13)

Again we have another image of numb suffering—this time it's of people slowly freezing to death. (Cheery as always, Emily.) One of the things that strikes us the most here is the image of snow falling on the freezing people. Emily could've chosen something hard and sharp like sleet, but instead she gives the image of soft snow. In some ways, the subtleness makes it more sinister. This is the kind of suffering that creeps up on you before it drags you down.

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