Emily Dickinson is one of America's most revered poets. Interestingly, she achieved fame only after her death in 1886. In "After Great Pain," widely renowned as one of her two greatest poems, she describes three stages of pain experienced in an unknown traumatic event. In this poem she describes emotions that transcend centuries. The phases that she so vividly describes can be found in tragedies that we all experience even today. .
The first phase of pain that Dickinson describes is a "chill." She opens her poem with the description of a "formal feeling." This use of words gives one the impression of an emptiness or hollowness. It invokes a rigid emotion. She writes, "The Nerves sit ceremonious, like tombs," which seems to verify that "formality." Nerves seem to stand guard and loom over one's life. The pain is encased in one's nerves and heart much like death is encased in a tomb. It is a feeling that leaves her "stiff heart" dark, cold and devoid of any other emotion. Dickinson explains a pain so great that it may have occurred "yesterday, or Centuries before." She is so overwhelmed with the pain and hurt that the heart can no longer keep track of time. .
The second stage of pain in the poem is "stupor." Dickinson describes the emotional strain that the pain has on daily motions. She moves to a more methodical existence. There is a lost feeling that makes her "feet, mechanical" walking in circles without a real purpose as if she is not "of ground, or air." It seems that she is speaking of a life that leads itself without purpose. Her path in life becomes "a wooden way" that she must navigate alone. She is going through the motions but not absorbing or enjoying life. .
The final stage of pain described in Dickinson's work is "letting go." It is a relief and a hardening in one. She speaks of the "Hour of Lead." This reference seems to invoke a feeling heaviness and hardness. The phrase, "remembered, if outlived," is an eloquent representation of the enormity of the pain and also the relief of letting go.