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16 November 2012

After great pain, a formal feeling comes—

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—

                                                                                          F372 (1862)  341

If there’s a better poetic marriage of poetic device and meaning, I don’t know of one. Here Dickinson portrays the emotional paralysis that follows grief. The paralysis is mirrored in every line as the poet slows and thickens the pace and sound of the verse.
One device is the spondee (a metrical ‘foot’ with two adjoining accented syllables—such as “great pain” or “First—Chill”). Another is the use of long, drawn-out sounds. This is accomplished with long vowels (e.g., great pain, feeling, bore, before), dipththongs (e.g., round, Ground, Hour), and the dashes that encourage the reader to pause. Commas, too are used as in “Of Ground, or Air, or Ought.” Here the poem practically grinds to a halt as long-sounding words, separated by comma pauses, trail off into the nothingness of “Ought.”
                  The poem has three sections, each represented in a stanza. The first describes the how one feels after “great pain.” The feeling “comes” as if a visitor is paying a “formal” visit. The poor nerves must “sit ceremonious” rather than fall apart weeping. No, they must sit like “Tombs” as if they were impervious and lifeless marble rather than the messengers of pain and pleasure. The heart, too, is “stiff.” In this frozen drawing room it wonders about that former pain born by Jesus as he felt abandoned by God, his father. Yet the heart isn’t clear about this. Did he bear such pain? Was that yesterday? Centuries ago? It’s as if pain transcends and annuls time. The nerves and stiff heart are now no longer able to enter the flow and feeling of the living. They are frozen in a deathly formality.
                  The second stanza shows how the stricken person acts in the world. Their “Feet, mechanical, go round— / A Wooden way.” There is no spring in these steps. The feet themselves have lost all feeling, being just mechanical devices moving woodenly. There is no destination, nowhere to go. The person simply goes round. We see the person pacing the room or the garden, but there is nothing in the ground, nothing in the air, nothing at all—“Ought”—that is noticed. The progression here is a whiting out: ground, air, ought. The world is erased. It is the life of a stone, the “Quartz contentment” recalling the ceremonious tomb of the previous stanza.
Fir trees protected by a still, cold blanket of snow.
                  The last stanza shows the survival of the first wave of the great pain as a type of death. Referencing the stone imagery again, Dickinson introduces the first hour as one of Lead.” “Lead” is not only among the world’s heaviest minerals but has a familiar rhyme with “dead” and “dread.” The phrase itself, “Hour of Lead,” is ponderous and heavy. The stakes are high: it might not be survived. Those who do outlive it remember it as a death. But unlike death from cold, where the sufferer enters a disengaged dream state before losing consciousness and life, the grief survivor survives by “letting go.” I think Dickinson means us to imagine that what is let go is the state of warm vitality—the aliveness that is shut down by the formality, the woodenness, the feeling of lead, and the resulting stupor. As in the “bandaged moments” the soul must protect itself through a wrapped sort of paralysis.
                  The last line is masterly not only for the insight and the word choice, but for the physical sensations involved in the sound and rhythm of the words. The ponderous, slow pace is akin to the freezing process. Three phases are separated by dashes that convey the passage of time. There is a distinct difference among the three stages: “First—Chill” has slow abrupt harshness as if one has hunched down shivering, arms clasped around legs, head on knees. “Then Stupor” has a sluggishness like stupor itself. The gentle iambs of the final phrase—“then the letting go—,” are the final release as the freezing person slips away into final dreams among the soft but lethal snow. The final syllable is dropped and the dash hanging into the white space on the page is a fitting ending.


  1. this is one of the best reading i have seen on this poem. good work

    1. I'm reading and rereading the last stanza. An amazing twist from death back into life. The freezing person who goes through the stages of Chill then Stupor then the letting go must have outlived the death in order to recount or remember it. If I am reading right.

  2. "First—Chill—then Stupor—then the letting go—"

    These are exactly the symptoms of hypothermia, which I'm sure were well known by survivors in ED's Amherst because death occurs an hour or even days after "the letting go", depending on the temperature and assuming the victim is not under water.


  3. I admire how you’ve analyzed the impact of the poetic devices, it’s really sensitive. What do you make of her use of time, especially in the final stanza? Remembered and recollect seem at odds with This being the hour of lead, just as time is confused in the first stanza

    1. hmmm. Good question. The framing of the Hour of Lead seems to indicate a short period of great pain, yet the poem clearly indicates a longer period.

      Time is not experienced: emotions (heart and nerves) are stiff, formal, like Tombs. Untouched by time. The body, characterized by feet, becomes mechanical, heedless, as blank as stone. Our sense of time is meaningless as nothing meaningful penetrates our quotidian existence while in the great pain.

      The survivor (and it is implied that some do not survive) remembers/recollects (I believe ED means the two terms to be synonyms) the great pain as if body and soul were in a leaden stupor. She implies there might be some hope if the lead/snow is somehow let go.

      Perhaps we are to see that the leaden hour, the deadened senses and stiff mechanics of the body are somehow part of a recovery process. It is as if the body and soul respond to great pain by retracting into something like a plaster cast where the cells begin their slow invisible work of repair.
      Chillingly, this repair may or may not be successful.

      Now that I'm thinking about this poem again, I'm wondering if Dickinson isn't saying that some intervention or rescue isn't needed in such an extreme case. Otherwise, how could the freezing person survive?

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I'd love to hear any further thoughts you might have.