"After great pain, a formal feeling comes" (#341) is one of Emily Dickinson's most frequently anthologized and explicated poems and, according to one critic, a work that many would consider "her supreme achievement." Yet, the considerable body of criticism that surrounds it often fails to recognize and elucidate the complexity of its form as well as the truth and profundity of its content. Also, in "After Great Pain" and other poems, Dickinson exhibits traits shared by great works of three of the acknowledged and representative "greats" of modern poetry in English: T.S. Eliot, William Butler Yeats, and Wallace Stevens. Among these traits are: images portraying dialectic and containing a tension between opposites; an interest in evanescent moments of transition; images of fragmentation and unity that express the theme of self-construction and reconstruction in terms of an ideal relation between form and content; the seeking of identity and wholeness through poetry and the embodying of that quest in poetic form; the theme of suffering and a renewal, again attained through poetic activity of the mind; the hope for a kind of rebirth out of fragmentation, conflict, and contradiction into an ideal whole, through either immortality after death, or the vocation of artist in life. In "After Great Pain" and Eliot's "Prufrock," both written early in their authors' careers as poets, the above-mentioned traits suggest the hopes and fears each writer had about the possibilities of poetry as a healing, self-constructive activity, and of poetic form as a way of capturing and containing the truth of confusing, ever-moving, often chaotic process. In Stevens' and Yeats's works "To an Old Philosopher in Rome" and "Byzantium," these tendencies combine to help express the longing of the aging poet for a supreme moment of apotheosis, a perfection of form containing all of an individual's experience, as a kind of immortality. All four poems use images of tension and equilibrium between opposing forces to describe, intertwine, and even imitate the processes whereby the soul attempts to reintegrate itself and make itself whole and a work of art approaches an ideal form that can "contain" and express process' most complex and elusive truths.
Taylor, Linda J.
"Form, Process, and the Dialectic of Self-Construction: “After Great Pain” and Three Modern Poems,"
University of Dayton Review: Vol. 19:
1, Article 11.
Available at: https://ecommons.udayton.edu/udr/vol19/iss1/11