Jun 30, 2010

Emily Dickinson, "After great pain . . . "

After great pain, a formal feeling comes – (372) by Emily Dickinson : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.

In case I wasn't clear yesterday about the relative simplicity and sweetness of Dickinson's "Hope Is the Thing with Feathers," compare it to one of her darker poems, "After Great Pain a Formal Feeling Comes." Maybe I'm just a downer-guy, or maybe depression, despair, and death are inherently weightier matters than hope. In any case, it seems to me that nothing in "Hope" matches the power and nuance of the imagery and state of mind at the center of "After Great Pain." I'm not sure I've experienced the poem's dark weight of mind, emotion, or spirit, but when Dickinson calmly states, "This is the hour lead," she makes me think I know what she's talking about. She makes me want to flee, except that she seems to know something I need to know, whether I want to or not.

We're probably left with more questions than answers in "Great Pain." Exactly what constitutes "great pain" and a "formal feeling"? What caused them? Or does a little voice then kick in and call us dishonest for pretending we need to ask?

Also, Dickinson tries to make herself clear, but the grey blankness of this state of mind (should we call it layered?) is too amorphous for clarity or logic, even though it has the color, heft, and authority of lead. The best Dickinson can do is offer images that might come close to capturing a condition as elusive as it is definite. It lacks definition; it is definitive. It's been said that paradox is the language of poetry.

In every stanza, if not every line, there's a word, phrase, or concept that stuns me. Who would have thought of this as a "formal" feeling? Less mysterious, but awfully interesting is the fact that it arrives "after" great pain. Wouldn't most of us have chosen pain itself as the subject rather than its aftermath?

Why is this state personified as "He," and how does He become a "bore"? Or is "bore" the past tense of "bear"? If that's the case, what was it that He bore? The formal feeling? How so? And is there a play on the word "boor"? This might be a spot where Dickinson's quirky punctuation and word choice are pushing things at least an inch too far. How can we not wonder if she's simply struggling for rhyme?

A what contentment? "Quartz," you say? And wait, you're associating this aftermath of great pain with some kind of "contentment"? And then those last two lines--what happens, in what order, and how does it amount to a "letting go"?

All of this illustrates one of the great purposes of poetry (and probably all art): to capture experiences rather than talk about them, to use imagery and metaphor to express the inexpressible. I doubt any writer has offered any Message that has the impact of Dickinson's attempt to render an experience here.



Brenda's Arizona said...

A very gray poem. She describes a place that isn't pleasant to visit if you have taught yourself not to visit these places. Sigh...

Anonymous said...

Well yes, hope seems a little thing when standing beside death; barely worth the trouble. Much of life, if you're going to enjoy it at all, is a constant process of turning around and training your stare somewhere else.

Banjo52 said...

Sister Wymyn, I agree there's no point in seeking out or surrendering to such states.

I suspect the flip side is that most people beyond their early teen years have experienced something like this (or any dark poem), and the poet is offering new language or angles of thought for us to share. Misery loves company, and we've all felt misery at one time or another.

Wouldn't it be nice if the choice were as simple as paying a shrink versus reading a few dark poems. "Oh, she had it worse than I do. I feel better." Or, "She's named my very darkness. The weight's a little lighter because I realize now that at least two of us are carrying it."

Maybe a third option is something like a poem's creation of empathy in the reader. "Well, I've never been THAT down, but I suppose I need to know that others have--and still are."

I wonder how many people have been led to their own dark places by things they've read. I'm guessing not many. Could Plath and Sexton have been saved if they'd just read superhero comic books and stayed away from, say, Dostoevsky? Sounds absurd, but I've never read or heard anything on the subject--unless it's today's question of how much graphic violence, sexuality, or weirdness actually causes troubled teens to become even more troubled.

But if there is a counter to your points, I'm guessing it's in the first two options.

I think both of your second sentences hit on something very important.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I wasn't criticizing the poem or the content at all. I think I was just stating a fact, that hope isn't the flip side of death; life isn't either. Death can't have a flip side since it always wins.

Banjo52 said...

AH, great phrasing as well as thought.

One strength in the poem that I'm trying to get at is its choice of some state of mind, something like numbness, AFTER great pain and BEFORE death, as its choice of subject. If nothing else, it's less predictable. And maybe the poem's merits go beyond that.

As Brenda says, "a very gray poem." How much of most lives is lived in gray? How often is each of us able, to almost-quote AH, to "turn around and train our stares somewhere else?" Or, in a nod to this holiday, to declare our independence from what oppresses us. How capable are we of doing that whenever we wish? Do we have the freedom of choice and strength of will to be what the existentialists say we are: completely free agents?

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