Skip to main content

"Great pain" is the predicate on which the sentence of fixity lies, the prior experience against which feeling hardens in intransigent difference. The relationship between the adjective in "formal feeling," the adverb in "The Nerves sit ceremonious," and the simile, "like Tombs—" is a relationship of progressive clarity; the connections get made in the underground touching of the roots of each of these words; the "formal feeling," "ceremonious," is a feeling of death. And as if in parody of the initial image, in the next line the "Heart" too is a "stiff," unable to connect self to incident or to date.

Like the "Element of Blank—," like the "Trance—" that covers pain, and like the "nearness to Tremendousness— / An Agony procures—," the "formal feeling" is an abdication of presence, a fact that explains why the question the speaker puts to herself is framed by incredulity and designates the subject as someone else, a "He, that bore," why the time that precedes the present becomes mere undifferentiated space, "Yesterday, or Centuries before?" But unlike "Blank—," "Trance—," and "a nearness to Tremendousness—," the "formal feeling" is an anatomy of pain's aftermath from a distance, a self standing outside of the otherness that possesses it. Thus we are told of the parts of the body as if they were someone else's or no one's: "The Heart . . . the Nerves . . . the Feet . . . "; thus we are shown actions, how the body looks, what it does, rather than feelings. Thus the speaker arrives at a definition ("This is the Hour of Lead—") divorced from the experience because encompassing it. Thus the concluding simile departs from the present as if in analogy there were some further, final escape.

But although the initial images follow upon each other like a death, the second stanza makes clear that death is only an analogy for the body that has lost its spirit, for the vacancy of will. Given its absence, all action is repetition of movement without meaning, and as if to emphasize the attendant vacuousness, the lines repeat each other: "The Feet" "go round—" in circles, "Wooden," "Regardless grown," until the stanza's final line boldly flaunts its own redundancy. "A Quartz contentment " is "like a stone—" because quartz is a stone. However, perhaps Dickinson means us to see two images here, the transparent crystal and the grey stone to which it clouds, in a synesthesia that would equate the darkening of color with a formal hardening. As in "perfect—paralyzing Bliss— / Contented as Despair—," contentment here is the ultimate quiet, the stasis that resembles death. "Wood," "stone," "Lead—"—the images to this point have been ones of progressive hardening. The image with which the poem concludes, however, is more complex because of its susceptibility to transformation, its capacity to exist as ice, snow, and finally as the melting that reduces these crystals to water. The poem's last line is an undoing of the spell of stasis. Because it is not another, different expression of hardness but implies a definite progression away from it by retracing the steps that comprise its history, we know that the "letting go—" is not a letting go of life, is not death, but is rather the more colloquial "letting go" of feeling, an unleashing of the ability to experience it again. To connect the stages of the analogy to the stages of the poem: "Chill—" precedes the poem, "Stupor—" preoccupies it, and "the letting go—" exists on the far side of its ending. The process whereby blankness has been called into existence, given palpable form, dimension, character and movement enables the poem to specify what the previous poems on pain merely note. Dickinson's poems mostly take place "After great pain," in the space between "Chill—" and "Stupor—." "Life [is] so very sweet at the Crisp," she wrote longingly, "what must it be unfrozen! " (L 472). But the conversion of the body into stone was not lasting. She was not, as she sometimes seemed to declare herself, numb from the neck down. Pain was the shot that inflicted temporary paralysis, a remedy that worked until the poems took over. Then she could spell out the words she swore consciousness refused her, "letting [the feeling] go—" into them where from a distance she could look.

We saw earlier how, in Derrida’s terms, pain is a trace of lost presence, the record of its having been. Thus Dickinson's speakers "learn the Transport by the Pain—," sometimes seeming to harbor the belief that "Pain-" is "the Transport" it stands for. Pain is with us as a presence because pain stands for (in place of) presence. But pain, as we have seen in the last few pages, is also the past after which, from which, comes the "formal feeling" that is the poem. If we were to arrange the three terms in a sequence (present/ce, pain, and poem) they would, each one, hark back to a past that eluded all efforts to retain it. For the first temporal principle is one of alterity, the present differing from the past and the future from the present. We then have some idea of why Dickinson claimed in her meeting with Higginson not to have learned how to tell time until she was fifteen. For to tell time is to tell difference, to note the failure of resemblance ever to be the same as that from which it differs. Dickinson’s poems on pain are an attempt to blank time out and to create, in its place, a space where the temporal apparatus of daily life has been as if disconnected. For presence is past, and even what follows presence (what Poulet calls the moment after loss) lies behind us. In the sequence of diminishing returns, what has been is, by definition, missing. What remains is a true blank, the genuine space at the thought of which despair "raves—," and around which words gather in the mourning that is language.


From Lyric Time: Dickinson and the Limits of Genre. Copyright © 1979 by The Johns Hopkins UP.