Study Guide

After great pain, a formal feeling comes Memory and the Past

By Emily Dickinson

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Memory and the Past

The speaker of "After great pain, a formal feeling comes" definitely doesn't have a crystal clear memory of her past. She spends the whole poem looking back on a past trauma with blurry eyes. (Guess her health insurance doesn't include visual.) The pain that she suffered isn't in focus for her at all; she even seems to be not so sure about what exactly happened. Instead, it's kind of a dull ache that makes her feel numb toward the present, past, and future. Throughout, the poem sets up weird dislocations in time that make us feel disoriented. We're never quite sure where one moment begins and another ends.

Questions About Memory and the Past

  1. Why do you think the speaker chooses to blur time in the poem? 
  2. How does the poem show the past controlling the present actions of the speaker?
  3. Why do you think the poem starts off with clearer delineations between past and present, but then gets mushier along the way?

Chew on This

The poem shows how hard it is to live with the memory of a traumatic event.

The poem blurs the lines between past and present to place the reader in the shoes of a person who is disoriented and confused.

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