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On 341 ("After Great Pain, A Formal Feeling Comes–") Essay, Research Paper

Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren

["After great pain, a formal feeling comes"] is obviously an attempt to

communicate to the reader the nature of the experience which comes "after great

pain." The poet is using the imagery for this purpose, and the first line of the

poem, which states the subject of the poem, is the only abstract statement in the poem.

The pain is obviously not a physical pain; it is some great sorrow or mental pain which

leaves the mind numbed. The nerves, she says, "sit ceremonious like tombs." The

word sit is very important here. The nerves, it is implied, are like a group of people

after a funeral sitting in the parlor in a formal hush. Then the poet changes the image

slightly by adding "like tombs." The nerves are thus compared to two different

things, but each of the comparisons contributes to the same effect, and indeed are closely

related: people dressed in black sitting around a room after a funeral may be said to be

like tombs. And why does the reference to "tombs " seem such a good symbol for a

person who has just suffered great pain (whether it be a real person or the nerves of such

a person personified)? Because a tomb has to a supreme degree the qualities of deadness

(quietness, stillness) and of formality (ceremony, stiffness).

Notice that the imagery (through the first line of the last stanza) is characterized by

the possession of a common quality, the quality of stiff lifelessness. For instance, the

heart is "stiff," the feet walk a "wooden" way, the contentment is a

"quartz" contentment, the hour is that of "lead." The insistence on

this type of imagery is very important in confirming the sense of numbed consciousness

which is made more explicit by the statement that the feet move mechanically and are

"regardless" of where they go. Notice too that the lines are bound together, not

only by the constant reference of the imagery to the result of grief, but also by the fact

that the poet is stating in series what happens to the parts of the body: nerves, heart,


Two special passages in the first two stanzas deserve additional /469/ comment before

we pass on to the third stanza. The capital letter in the word He tells us that

Christ is meant. The heart, obsessed with pain and having lost the sense of time and

place, asks whether it was Christ who bore the cross. The question is abrupt and elliptic

as though uttered at a moment of pain. And the heart asks whether it is not experiencing

His pain, and—having lost hold of the real world—whether the crucifixion took

place yesterday or centuries before. And behind these questions lies the implication that

pain is a constant part of the human lot. The implied figure of a funeral makes the

heart’s question about the crucifixion come as an appropriate one, and the quality of the

suffering makes the connection implied between its own sufferings and that on the cross

not violently farfetched.

The line, "A quartz contentment like a stone," is particularly interesting.

The comparison involves two things. First, we see an extension of the common association

of stoniness with the numbness of grief, as in such phrases as "stony-eyed" or

"heart like a stone," etc. But why does the poet use "quartz"? There

are several reasons. The name of the stone helps to particularize the figure and prevent

the effect of a clich?. Moreover, quartz is a very hard stone. And, for one who knows

that quartz is a crystal, a "quartz contentment" is a contentment crystallized,

as it were, out of the pain. This brings us to the second general aspect involved by the

comparison. This aspect is ironical. The contentment arising after the shock of great pain

is a contentment because of the inability to respond any longer, rather than the ability

to respond satisfactorily and agreeably.

To summarize for a moment, the poet has developed an effect of inanimate lifelessness,

a stony, or wooden, or leaden stiffness; now, she proceeds to use a new figure, that of

the freezing person, which epitomizes the effect of those which have preceded it, but

which also gives a fresh and powerful statement.

The line, "Remembered if outlived," is particularly forceful. The implication

is that few outlive the experience to be able to remember and recount it to others. This

experience of grief is like a death by freezing: there is the chill, then the stupor as

the body becomes numbed, and then the last state in which the body finally gives up the

fight against the cold, and relaxes and /470/ dies. The correspondence of the stages of

death by freezing to the effect of the shock of deep grief on the mind is close enough to

make the passage very powerful. But there is another reason for the effect which this last

figure has on us. The imagery of the first two stanzas corresponds to the

"stupor." The last line carries a new twist of idea, one which supplies a

context for the preceding imagery and which by explaining it, makes it more meaningful.

The formality, the stiffness, the numbness of the first two stanzas is accounted for: it

is an attempt to hold in, the fight of the mind against letting go; it is a defense of the

mind. /471/


. . . The authority of "After great pain, a formal feeling comes" derives

from the technical skill with which the language is controlled. As she always does in her

best poems, Emily Dickinson makes her first line lock all succeeding lines into position.

. . . /97/ The heaviness of the pain is echoed by bore, wooden, quartz, stone, lead.

The formal feeling is coldly ceremonious, mechanical, and stiff, leading through chill and

stupor to a "letting go." The stately pentameter measure of the first stanza is

used, in the second, only in the first line and the last, between which are hastened

rhythms. The final two lines of the poem, which bring it to a close, reestablish the

formality of the opening lines. Exact rhymes conclude each of the stanzas.

Emily Dickinson’s impulse to let the outer form develop from the inner mood now begins

to extend to new freedoms. Among her poems composed basically as quatrains, she does not

hesitate to include a three-line stanza, as in "I rose because he sank," or a

five-line stanza, as in "Glee, the great storm is over." On some occasions, to

break the regularity in yet another way or to gain a new kind of emphasis, she splits a

line from its stanza, allowing it to stand apart, as in "Beauty—be not

caused—lt Is," and "There’s been a Death, in the Opposite House."

Sometimes poems beginning with an iambic beat shift in succeeding stanzas to a trochaic,

to hasten the tempo, as in "In falling timbers buried." It is the year too when

she used her dashes lavishly. /98/


Between 1860 and 1862 Emily Dickinson is commonly believed to have experienced a

psychic catastrophe, which drove her into poetry instead of out of her mind. According to

her explanation, she was haunted by some mysterious fright, and her fear, or whatever it

was, opened the floodgates of her poetry. But despite their overwhelming number, the poems

she produced under these conditions are not an amorphous overflow from a distraught mind;

they are informed and well-wrought, the creations of controlled artistry—especially

about twenty-five or thirty poems which, unlike the rest, treat specifically the intense

subtleties of mental anguish, anatomizing them with awesome precision. And since all of

the poems in this small cluster deal with varied aspects of that one subject, all of them

follow a certain basic pattern dictated by the abstract nature of pain.

In each of these poems Dickinson was faced with this initial problem: somehow she had

to describe a formless, internal entity which could never be revealed to others except in

terms of its outward signs and manifestations. Moreover, these externalizations did not

always /260/ correspond to the internal condition but at times, in fact, represented the

exact opposite. Yet in poetry if such signs were completely misleading, they would

obviously defeat their own purpose by communicating the wrong thing. Consequently, they

must offer some oblique means for the reader to penetrate appearances to the reality

beneath. In solving this problem Dickinson created some of her most interesting and

complex poetry. Generally speaking, irony was her weapon as well as her strategy. First,

she usually set up for her persona some sort of external ritual or drama, which contains

various levels of calm objectivity. Then, through a series of ironic involutions generated

in the course of this symbolic action, she eventually led the reader from appearances to

the reality of a silent anguish made more terrifying by its ironic presentation, as [in

"After great pain, a formal feeling comes"]. . . .

In a literal sense, this poem has neither persona nor ritual, and since it describes a

state of mind, neither would seem to be necessary. In such a case attention should be

centered on the feeling itself and secondarily on its location. Consequently Dickinson

personified various parts of the body so as to demonstrate the action of numbness on

them—the nerves, the heart, the feet—generalized entities

belonging to no one. Yet that is precisely the formal feeling benumbed contentment

produces in a person, especially one who has lost the sense of time and his own identity

(lines 3-4). All the parts of his body seem to be autonomous beings moving in mysterious

ways. If that constitutes a persona, it is necessarily an unobtrusive one that must be

reconstructed from disjecta membra. Similarly, the /261/ various actions performed

in this poem are disjunctive, and though vaguely related to a chaotic travesty of a

funeral, they are not patterned by any consistent, overall ceremony. Since they are all

external manifestations or metaphors for numbness, however, they are all as they should

be, lifeless forms enacted in a trance as though they were part of some meaningless rite.

The first stanza, for instance, is held rigid by the ceremonious formality of the

chamber of death when, after the great pain of its passing, the corpse lies tranquil and

composed, surrounded by mourners hushed in awe so silent that time seems to have gone off

into eternity "Yesterday, or Centuries before." In one respect this metaphor is

particularly suitable since the nerves are situated round about the body or the

"stiff Heart" like mourners about the bed of death. But if the metaphor is

extended further, it seems to become ludicrously unsuitable. These nerves, for example,

are not neighbors lamenting with their silent presence the death of a friend. They are

sensation itself, but here they are dead, as ceremonious and lifeless as tombs.

Consequently, the formal feeling that comes after great pain is, ironically, no feeling at

all, only benumbed rigidness. Conversely, if the "stiff Heart" is the corpse, he

nevertheless has life or consciousness enough to question whether it was "He, that

bore, / And Yesterday, or Centuries before." Obviously, this is moving toward

artistic chaos since metaphors should be more and more applicable the further they are

extended, but this one apparently becomes progressively worse. Curiously, however, by

breaking all the rules Dickinson achieved the exact effect she needed. Her problem was to

describe an essentially paradoxical state of mind in which one is alive but yet numb to

life, both a living organism and a frozen form. Consequently she took both terms of this

paradox and made each a reversed reflection of the other. Although the mourners, the

nerves, appear to be the living, they are in actuality the dead, and conversely the stiff

heart, the metaphoric corpse, has ironically at least a semblance of consciousness. In

their totality, both these forms of living death define the "stop sensation"

that comes after great pain.

Since the metaphoric nightmare of the first stanza could hardly be extended any

further, Dickinson is obviously not concerned with elaborating a conceit. In the second

stanza, then, the cataleptically formal rites of the dead are replaced by a different sort

pf action ceremoniously performed in a trance, an extension not of the previous metaphor,

but of the paradox which informed it. For although move- /262/ ment usually indicates

vitality, there is no life in the aimless circles of the walking dead. Whether numb feet

go on the hardness of ground or on the softness of air, their way is wooden because

paralysis is within them. Since they cannot feel nor know nor even care where they are

going ("Regardless grown"), they wander in circles ("go round") on an

insane treadmill as though lost, suspended between life and death and sharing the

attributes of both.

The third stanza is, in one respect, an imagistic repetition of the second. Benumbed,

aimless movements through a world of waste, the motions of the living dead are similar to

the trance-like, enchanted steps of persons freezing in a blank and silent world of

muffling snow. But at the same time that this metaphor refers particularly to the

preceding stanza, it also summarizes the entire poem since the ambiguous antecedent of This

in line 10 is, in one respect, everything that went before. Consequently, this final image

should somehow fuse all the essential elements of the poem. Not only that, it should

present them in sharp focus.

Certainly the chill and subsequent stupor of freezing, a gradual numbing of the senses,

incorporates many of the attributes of death itself: a loss of vital warmth, of

locomotion, of a sense of identity in time and space conjoined with an increasing

coolness, rigidness, and apathy. Since freezing, however, is neither life nor death but

both simultaneously, it is an excellent, expansive metaphor for the living death which

comes after great pain. But in addition to extending the basic paradox which informs the

poem, this final figure serves a more important function by drawing to the surface and

presenting in full ambivalence a certain ironic ambiguity which in the first two stanzas

remains somewhat below the threshold of conscious awareness.

In its furthest extent great pain produces internal paralysis, but, ironically, this

numbness is not itself a pain. It is no feeling, "an element of blank," which

gradually emerges from the poem until at the end it almost engulfs it in white

helplessness. In the first stanza it lurks just below the surface, unstated, but

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