After great pain, a formal feeling comes – The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –
Well, at least the first three words aren't that cryptic. The speaker is setting us up to say what happens after we go through some kind of big trauma.
But what's up with this "formal feeling" thing? Could she be trying to get us to think about how people kind of suppress emotions on formal occasions like, oh say, a funeral?
That would make sense since a funeral is a formal occasion that happens after a painful event like somebody dying.
The second line confirms our suspicions with "ceremonious" and "Tombs." These words definitely put us in a funereal frame of mind.
Notice how the speaker uses personification with "Nerves" by saying they do the human action of sitting.
She then piles a simile on top of the personification when she tells us that they sit "like Tombs."
All of this comes together to describe the "formal feeling" from line 1 and seems to be saying that it's a feeling of numbness.
Our nerves are what we feel with, right? So if they're like still gravestones, then they're not feeling much at all.
Add all that up, and it looks like the speaker is saying that after we experience something awful, we go numb.
On the technical tip, we also notice that these lines are in iambic pentameter. For a thorough breakdown of what that means for the poem, check out "Form and Meter."
There's also a bunch of sound games going on in these first two lines. For example, we've got assonance with "great pain" and alliteration with "formal feeling." You'll find much more on these and the poem's other sonic acrobatics in "Sound Check."
The stiff Heart questions 'was it He, that bore,' And 'Yesterday, or Centuries before'?
Again, the speaker uses personification on a part of the body. This time it's the Heart, which seems to be asking a question about who "bore" the "great pain" from line 1.
There's a lot of fuzziness here, though. For one, the poem doesn't make it totally clear who the Heart is asking about. Is the "He" in line 3 the Heart, itself, or somebody else?
Since the question is in quotes, we might assume that the Heart is referring to another person with "He"—unless the Heart is one of those weirdoes who talks about themselves in the third person.
Especially since "He" is capitalized, many think that the speaker's talking about Mr. Jesus Christ, himself.
It would make sense, not only because Emily's poetry is chock full of Christian imagery, but also because Jesus is a major symbol of suffering in, oh, all of Western literature.
We also notice that the Heart is described as "stiff," which means it's in the same boat as those numb Nerves from line 2.
As we get the rest of the Heart's question in 1.4, the fuzziness continues. Not only is the Heart confused about who bore the pain, it's also a little foggy on when the pain happened. It could've been yesterday, or a super long time ago.
So if the "He" from line 3 is Jesus, then it makes sense that the pain would've happened a long time ago, but how could it have been just yesterday? Is the speaker blurring the pain she bore with the pain of Jesus? Could she be alluding to Jesus to use him as a symbol of the suffering that every human being experiences?
It might be that by blurring time, she's showing how pain happens over and over again throughout the centuries, and that no matter when it occurs we always feel numb afterward.
Like with any good poem, there's no way pinpoint exactly what these lines mean. All the ambiguity is great because it helps to get across the confused, discombobulated feeling we have when we're in a state of shock.
On the technical tip, we also notice that the poem is still in iambic pentameter and also that the last two lines of the stanza rhyme. (Again, go to "Form and Meter" more than you want to know about that.)