After great pain a formal feeling comes--
The nerves sit ceremonious like tombs;
The stiff Heart questions--was it He that bore?
And yesterday--or centuries before?

The feet, mechanical, go round
A wooden way
Of ground, or air, or ought,
Regardless grown,
A quartz contentment, like a stone.

This is the hour of lead
Remembered if outlived,
As freezing persons recollect the snow--
First chill, then stupor, then the letting go.

Dickinson is an astute student of human psychology and responses; her range may be narrow, but it is profound. Dickinson brilliantly recreates the suffering we undergo after some terrible, excruciating event in our lives. The specific cause of the torment inthis poem does not matter; whatever the cause, the response is the same, and, in this poem, the response is what matters.

She traces the numbness experienced after some terrible blow. Is numbness one way we protect ourselves against the onrush of pain and against being overwhelmed by suffering? She is discussing emotional pain, but don't we respond similarly to a physical blow with numbness before pain sets in? This psychological dynamic has another parallel, an electrical circuit breaker. Just as a dangerous surge of electricity will trip a circuit breaker and cut off the electricity, so a surge of anguish will trip our emotional "circuit breaker" temporarily, so that we don't feel the pain.

The experience is one that all of us will undoubtedly endure at some time or other and may be one you have already endured.

Stanza 1

She uses alliteration for emphasis: f sounds in line 1, s sounds in the rest of the stanza. H sounds tie together "Heart" and "He." Notice the alliteration in the next stanzas; sometimes it involves only two words.

This poem has no speaker, no "I." The sufferer is dehumanized, perhaps until the last two lines. The sufferer is an object in line 1; the formal feeling "comes" upon or acts on her or him; the sufferer is passive, submissive. Then the sufferer is described in terms of body parts--nerves, heart, feet. The gender of the sufferer is not indicated. Is depersonalization one technique for showing emotional deadness? In my discussion of this poem, I will refer to the sufferer as "she," because of the awkwardness of constantly repeating "sufferer" or "he or she."

Dickinson captures the numbness with "formal feeling," "ceremonious," "like tombs," and "Stiff Heart." The numbness is a lack of feeling; perhaps it would be more accurate to say a lack of connection with feelings or a disconnection from emotions. Consider how much feeling or responsiveness is suggested by the word "formal," how much feeling is involved in ceremony, especially ceremony associated with "tombs" or death, and how much a "stiff" heart can feel.

The individual asks a question about Christ ("He"). Christ of course symbolizes agony and is the ultimate suffering human being. The question can be read in more than one way. (1) The blow was so horrific that the sufferer is confused about whether the crucifixion was hers or Christ's. (2) The agony, which the sufferer is cut off from but knows is there, is so acute that the sufferer wonders whether the agony of the crucifixion is hers or Christ's. Paradoxically, numbness or having no feelings is itself an agony. In numbness, time becomes distorted; we lose our sense of time. We perceive no end to this state of agonized numbness. So she is unsure whether her numbness began only yesterday or centuries ago.

Stanza 2

The feet (means of movement) represent going about daily routines ("ground, or air, or ought"). But we do this in a "mechanical" and a "wooden" way--further dehumanization and deadness. "Ought" may be read as meaning ""nothing," like zero; or it may stand for obligations, that is, all the things we ought to do. Which possibility do you prefer and why? Or, do you have yet another reading? "Regardless grown" means having lost regard or concern for things or living.

Finally, there is the irony of feeling an emotion which is "quartz contentment." Obviously, "quartz contentment" is an oxymoron. How much feeling does quartz have? To emphasize the quartz-ness of the "contentment," Dickinson adds that it is "like a stone." And how much feeling does this simile suggest?

Just looking at the poem reveals how this stanza differs from the first and third stanzas. They are both four lines; this stanza is five lines. Why might Dickinson have chosen to make this stanza longer? The way to think about this question is to consider the meaning of the stanza. Is making the stanza longer, which emphasizes it and also makes it "feel" a little longer and slower when we read it, appropriate to the meaning? If this extra line does not further in any way the idea expressed in this stanza, then the device may have been a mistake.

Stanza 3

The time of numbness has been shortened from the century of stanza one; its end is nearing. However, to the sufferer time hangs heavy ("lead") or drags slowly. So "hour of lead" is also an oxymoron.

With line 2, the full force and danger of experiencing the agony are introduced--"if outlived." The sufferer may not survive the pain. The poem closes with a simile or comparison of the sufferer to "freezing persons." "Freezing," as opposed to "frozen," indicates action that is currently happening, that is in process or not yet completed. The sufferer has moved on to the next stage and is undergoing the freezing or releasing of the agonized feelings. Does the fact that Dickinson uses the plural "persons," rather than the singular "a person," emphasize the universal application of the process she is tracing?

What is the "letting go" that freezing persons face? Does this merely mean letting go of the numbness to be flooded by pain? Or does the sufferer face a more terrible possibility? Will the pain overwhelm permanently, so that identity, the life itself, are overwhelmed by it and the individual is lost in it forever, as in the phrase "if outlived"? Do the words "remembered if outlived" indicate survival because of "remembered"? To remember is to have survived. However, the hour of lead is remembered only "if outlived"; does this phrasing suggests that survival is not guaranteed?

Dickinson, Online overview
"For each ecstatic instant," p. 2
"I taste a liquor never brewed," p. 2
"Safe in their alabaster chambers," p. 3
"I heard a fly buzz when I died," p. 21
"It was not death, for I stood up," p. 22
"A bird came down the walk," p. 13
"I like to see it lap the miles," p. 27
"Pain has an element of blank," p. 31
"A narrow fellow in the grass," p. 44
"I'm nobody! Who are you?" p. 9
"After great pain a formal feeling comes" (handout)
"The soul selects her own society" (handout)
"The heart asks pleasure first," p. 24
"I'll tell you how the sun rose," p. 11
"Presentiment is that long shadow on the lawn," p. 36
"Success is counted sweetest" (handout)
"I cannot live with you," p. 29
"He fumbles at your spirit," p. 11
"I felt a cleaving in my mind," p. 43
"My life closed twice before its close," p. 49
"Wild nights! Wild nights!" p.5
"She sweeps with many-colored brooms," p. 3
"Hope is the thing with feathers," p. 5
"I felt a funeral in my brain," p. 8
"I had been hungry all the years," p. 26
"I started Early--took my Dog--" (handout)
"My life had stood a loaded gun" (handout)
"Because I could not stop for Death," p. 35
"If you were coming in the fall," p. 23
**Supplemental Reading**
      Sample Midtern and Student Answers

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