Of the many poems for which Dickenson was revered, “After a Great Pain” holds singular meaning for both her fans and critics. The reason for this can be attributed to the fact that, it addresses the universal theme of healing after suffering.
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The process of recovery from pain and grief is a common experience for every human being and as a result, it is easy for readers to relate to the poem’s context. Some analysts estimate the poem was composed, either during, or near the end of the civil war and they claim she may have been inspired by the prevailing events. Considering the historical backdrop in which she wrote, it is not surprising that she should address suffering and healing since the first was prevalent, and the second badly needed.
Dickenson describes how the aftermath of pain numbs, and “the Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs” (2). She explains the feelings of nearly indifferent surprise, that someone could survive such suffering. Almost clinically, she pictures the chill that comes before one ultimately heals and moves on, discarding their pain to embrace new memories. Although her description evokes a romantic atmosphere around the post-pain blues, the poem is rather prosaic, perhaps even mechanical in its correctness.
The war was extremely bloody, and there was fighting all around her, which could explain why she focuses on pain. However, unlike her contemporaries who drew inspiration and even legitimacy from taking part in the war she had little interest in life beyond her family and friends. Some critics claim that While Whitman, another literary great of her time eulogized the fallen, Dickenson wrote about war from a distance.
People tend to talk about Dickenson as if she were a solitary literary genius, who lived the stereotypical quite life, probably to help her write better. However, she led an ordinary life in Amherst, typical for a woman in her time, in everything save for her spinsterhood (Bennett 9). It is likely that the myths about her emerged as people tried to rationalize how such a great poet could have escaped public notice. However, this is explicable by virtue of the fact that most of her poems were only published after her demise (Bennett 25).
In Dickenson’s lifetime, the country was threatening to split asunder and there were chaos and anarchy, inevitably resulting in pain and suffering. Although she does not directly mention death, she alludes to it in a simile in the second line where she compares nerves to tombs. In addition, considering the way the pain is described, it is clearly not physical since the suffering that follows it sounds similar to the experience of losing a loved one.
In addition, the pictured recovery process does not allude to a hurting body but a mind, the persona’s feet are described as “mechanical, go round – A Wooden way” (5). From this, one can surmise that physiologically, all is well and the suffering is emotional. The connection between suffering and the ongoing, or recently finished war is further enhanced by her metaphorical allusion to bullets as “lead”. “This is the hour of lead” (10).
The poem cuts across multitudes of other themes and contexts and is open to various interpretations, based on the perspective of a particular audience. To a bereft person, it provides comfort and hope, same as it would to a brokenhearted one. A contemporary psychologist may consider the poem’s breakdown of pain into three stages to be a frame for a coping mechanism. Dickenson appears to categorize stages of grief in order from, pain, numbness, and recovery, which are in tandem with many psychological theories.
While little is known about her personal or romantic life, it is likely Dickenson either had some experience with grief or spent time observing and contemplating the subject. She strives to prove that, suffering and pain are only temporary and they ultimately end as people move on with their lives.
Suffering is metaphorically described as a chill, whose memory fades from the mind as time goes by until it is completely forgotten. However, in this regard, Dickenson presumes all pain to be temporary, which is neither accurate nor practical. Sometimes, people suffer a loss and carry the pain with them for a lifetime, although these are rare cases. Naturally, humans tend to forget, sometimes even repress, painful experiences, which helps with the recovery process.
While her motivation for writing this particular poem remains unclear, it highly probable it was inspired by the violent times in which she lived. She could have composed it while thinking about the thousands who lost their loved ones in the fighting or even reflecting on her own losses. (Bloom 179).
Like most of her work, Dickenson’s poetry is both timeless and transcendent, which accounts for its unrelenting relevance. In this poem, she stirs the audience to reflect on the universal feelings of suffering and the healing that follows, reminding them that in matters of emotional pain, only time can heal.
Bennett, Paula. Dickenson Dickinson: woman poet. Iowa: University of Iowa Press, 1990.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Dickenson Dickinson. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2008.
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Dickinson, Dickenson. The Poems of Dickenson Dickinson. New York: Start Publishing LLC, 2012.