Aristotle once said: “The aim of the wise is not to secure pleasure, but to avoid pain”. Sticking to such a principle, perhaps, would may a life easier, but firstly one should understand what brings him/her pleasure and satisfaction and what can cause troubles. Following such a pattern of avoiding pain helps control the direction of life and make the procedure of making decisions easier.

Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson, an American poet of 19th century, must have known nothing about this saying, as one of the main themes, described in her works, was the influence of pain in human’s life. She is believed to have led the most ordinary life of any prominent poet. Emily Dickinson managed to have a relatively carefree existence in time of Civil War and general chaos in the country. Although she is known to be a solitary genius, the poetess took an active part in the life of literal circles of her time. 

Due to the diversity of Dickinson’s works her legacy is not ascribed to any of the literary movements or trends. She was famous for the ability to choose one word which could describe the whole succession of her thoughts and feelings. Concise but dynamic language of her literary pieces with long disruptive dashes is recognized as one of the most significant literary accomplishments of the nineteenth century.

After Great Pain

The poem “After Great Pain, a Formal Feeling Comes” is an example of common Dickinson’s subject matter – pain. She is noted for being a keen master of human psychology. In the poem the poetess managed to skillfully describe the feeling of misery one experiences after different perturbations or unendurable events in life. The reasons of suffering are not explained as they are not so important for Dickinson. Her aim is to explore how one responses to reverses of fortune, his/her psychological condition and mood.

Dickinson presents a reader with the description of emotional tension one undergoes and its peculiar stages. After experiencing “great pain” one always feels so frustrated and hopeless, that everything seems to lose its sense. Life doesn’t seem to be worth appreciation anymore and overall emptiness starts to fill one’s soul.  After this “stupor” comes “letting go” and the feeling of numbness, which possesses body and mind, begins to subside.

The mood of the poem is sad and a bit depressive, which is archived due to the usage of such words as bore, wooden, quartz, stone, lead. However, there is a slight feeling that everything can be survived and changed as long as there is a will and strength to do it. It can be explained by emotional condition of Dickinson when she created the poem. Some literary critics believe that was the time of mental crash of the poetess and only poetry helped her undergo it.


The poem “After Great Pain, a Formal Feeling Comes” is an example of stylistic diversity. Metaphors “feeling comes”, “nerves sit”, “Heart questions” emphasize the absence of a protagonist. Emily Dickinson personified different parts of the body, such as the nerves, the heart, the feet, to describe the person who suffers and show the state of numbness, which is a reaction to pain.

The author mentions God by addressing to him and asking him a question (“The stiff Heart questions--was it He that bore?”). It is used as a symbol of desperate condition of a sufferer, his/her agony. In such psychological state time is distorted, it is impossible to say when this feeling started “yesterday--or centuries before” or when it will fade.

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  • The line “The feet, mechanical, go round” denotes that a person still moves, though his/her actions are unconscious, as there is no perception of the world. “A wooden way
    Of ground, or air, or ought” symbolizes that the desire to go forward is lost as each attempt to change is failed and the whole existence is pointless.
  • The line “a quartz contentment, like a stone” presents an example of skillful oxymoron, as quartz is deprived of any kind of feeling especially contentment. Dickinson manages to combine a concrete and an abstract word into one word-combination to emphasize the artificiality of life.

The second stanza stands out for its structure, as it comprises five lines instead of four in the first and the last stanzas. In such a way Dickinson probably wanted to show that the process of moving forward can take longer and can be endured extremely painfully.

The last stanza of the poem symbolizes the next stage of this emotional wandering. Though the end of mental tortures is near, it becomes even more unbearable as time drags very slowly. “The hour of lead” here is another remarkable metaphor, which the poetess uses to create the sense of heavy, immovable object.

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The second line contributes to the creation of atmosphere of danger and unexpected ending. The phrase “remembered if outlived” implies the fact that few can survive the pain and recount it later. But if he/she is able to overcome it, then the feeling of emptiness and misery will vanish, leaving scars of experience in one’s soul.

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Emily Dickinson managed to create a masterful piece of literary work, which can inspire those who suffer from terrifying moments and instill confidence in them. By means of various stylistic devices she made a vivid image of her inner mood during hard periods of life. The poem reminds readers about how unbearably difficult life can turn out. However, it is never a reason to give up and lose faith in oneself.

This poem is Dickinson's strongest and most acute definition of a state that appears when emotional condition is out of balance. The pain, that formal feeling which comes after it, is a protective reaction of the mind to the cruelty of the world.

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