Study Guide

After great pain, a formal feeling comes Introduction

By Emily Dickinson

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After great pain, a formal feeling comes Introduction

Did you ever wonder about that weird lady down the street who never leaves her house? Like did you ever think, "What does she do in there all day? Watch soap operas? Quilt? Torture people in her windowless basement?"

Well, if you happened to live in Amherst, Massachusetts, back in the 19th century, then that weird lady down the street might have secretly been one of the greatest American poets of all time.

Yup, we're talking about none other than Emily Dickinson.

It's pretty well known that Emily was a total loner—well not totally, since she kept up with friends and family through a vigorous letter writing habit. Still, she spent most days in her home or tending the awesome gardens around her house. All this alone-time gave Emily the space she needed to create 1,775 of some of the greatest American poems ever.

What's crazy is that she barely tried to get any of these published. Was she shy? Nobody really knows, but it's probably a good thing. Because she didn't have a bunch of bossy editors trying to rein her in, Emily was able to write how she wanted to write. When you just so happen to be a genius, this is a very good thing.

"After a great pain, a formal feeling comes" is a poem that has all of Emily's eccentricities on full display. This one is downright experimental with dense conflicting images and an elastic use of meters. If an editor had seen this one, he seriously would've flipped out and the world would be short one intensely beautiful poem about the complex emotions that come after a trauma.

After Emily died in 1886, her sister Lavinia dealt with the trauma of Emily's death by going on a crusade to send her big sis's poems out into the world. Many of the poems were first published in 1890, but "After a great pain…" didn't see print until a 1929 edition of the Atlantic Monthly. Apparently, an editor saw this one back in 1890, and was like, "That's just crazy." It took the massive popularity of some Emily's more "accessible" poems to give this beauty a second glance.

What is After great pain, a formal feeling comes About and Why Should I Care?

Sooner or later, everybody gets a shock. And we're not talking about the kind of shock you get when you try to slide a Hot Pocket out of the toaster oven with a fork. We're talking about the kind of deep emotional shock that comes when something seriously bad happens.

Maybe you miss the final shot at the big game even though you're awesome. Or it could be that you discover your Dad has a secret family in Costa Rica. Or maybe somebody close to you dies.
Whatever it is—no matter how huge or miniscule—the period of time right after the initial pain can be pretty crappy. You can feel lost, alone, and totally numb to the world.

Whenever you're feeling like this, "After great pain, a formal feeling comes" is a poem that's there for you. Don't expect it to be there with sunshine and roses, though. Nah, it's that friend who's there to say, "Look, dude, I know how you feel." As you read these lines that perfectly capture the conflicted feelings that come after a trauma, you'll know it's being straight up with you.

After great pain, a formal feeling comes Resources


Dickinson Electronic Archive
Click here to get a peep at the original copy of the poem written in Emily's own handwriting.

Neurotic Poets
Lots of juicy Emily life facts here, even if the title is mildly judgy.

Dickinson Biography
Hey kids, it's bio time.


Dickinson Out Loud
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to hear the poem out loud while staring at a picture of her? Now you don't have to.


Harris does Dickinson
Actress Julie Harris performs some of Emily's poems and letters.


Dickinson Pic
Check out this new old picture of Emily.


The Emily Dickinson Journal
A one-stop shop for all your Dickinson needs.

Emily Dickinson: Selected Letters
Peek into Emily's private light by reading her letters.

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