Emily Dickinson: Poem 372, “After great pain, a formal feeling comes”

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For Patricia and our students

Emily Dickinson’s Poem 372 is not – technically speaking – a story. And Dickinson is not a storyteller per se. But her nearly 1,800 poems speak deeply and powerfully to the human condition. They give a still unparalleled account of what it is to be human.

Poem 372 does have some elements of storytelling. Instead of “once upon a time,” we get “after this, then this.” And then Dickinson describes the numbing, the freezing, the letting go – perhaps the dying that follows loss, pain, trauma.

Was she writing of a disappointment with her sister-in-law, Sue, believed by many to have been her lover? Was it a loss of a different kind? We will never know that part of the story – the who, what, when, where, perhaps not even the why. But we do very much know the how – how the loss affected her, how it feels as a human being to grieve, to feel pain.

Without a doubt, this poem makes me think of my dear friend Patricia Dwyer. When she was in high school, Patricia listened as her English teacher – a Catholic nun – recited this particular Dickinson poem. Patricia was so moved that she thought, “This is what I want to do. I want to do what Sister Helen Anthony has just done.” Patricia went on to become a nun herself for twenty years, and in that time, she became a junior high and high school English teacher and ultimately a university English professor.

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The power of this poem came to me fully in 2002, when Patricia and I were team-teaching a course on American Transcendentalism. On our week-long field trip to New England, we went to Dickinson’s hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts. Though many scholars don’t see Dickinson as a Transcendentalist, Patricia and I share a strong belief that she was influenced by and largely in sync with the leading literary and philosophical movement of the time.

After we toured the home Dickinson shared with her parents and the house next door where her brother, Austin, lived with his wife, Susan, we went to Dickinson’s gravesite at West Cemetery. There, we stood at the Dickinson family plot, bounded by a wrought-iron fence. It was a snowy March day, gray, heavy, damp. Together, we and our students stood silently, paying homage to the great poet.

Out of the snowy silence, Patricia began to recite the poem. “After great pain, a formal feeling comes,” she began, as Sister Helen Anthony had so many years ago. She concluded:

This is the Hour of Lead –
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –
First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –

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The silence grew deeper, and without a dry eye in the bunch, we quietly walked out of the cemetery.

To learn more about our journey to Amherst, visit the American Transcendentalism website we and our students created – and be sure to read Patricia’s journal reflections about reciting the poem at Dickinson’s gravesite. A good overview of Dickinson and her work can be found at the Poetry Foundation website. The definitive collection of her poems was edited by Thomas H. Johnson; it’s a volume that every poetry lover will want to own.

As New England once again experiences a deep chill and heavy snow, I remember Emily Dickinson.

Listen:Listen as I read Emily Dickinson’s Poem 372, “After great pain, a formal feeling comes –.”

Image Credit: Top: This 1847 daguerreotype is the only known image of Emily Dickinson as an adult. Middle: The Dickinson family plot at West Cemetery in Amherst, Massachusetts; note the members of the class walking away from the plot (photo by Linda Tate). Bottom: Emily Dickinson’s tombstone (photo by Linda Tate).

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Comments

  1. Amy Young says:

    Beginning with the new year, I have started reading one poem a day of Emily Dickinson’s–reading in the morning and then revisiting it at least once more before going to bed. Some of the early poems are roughly hewn, or overly predictable, and then not. I remember my own visit to Amherst and feeling spellbound in the place so inextricably connected to her words. Here is the website of a fellow traveler who has read and contemplated Dickinson’s poetry methodically — http://bloggingdickinson.blogspot.com/2011/06/2-1852.html. I have found it helpful to read another voice puzzling their way through Dickinson’s work. I may not find my way to Poem 372 again until 2019!

  2. Bonnie Burrows says:

    What rich memories come to mind with this StoryWeb. Thank you, Linda

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