The speaker notes that following great pain, “a formal feeling” often sets in, during which the “Nerves” are solemn and “ceremonious, like Tombs.” The heart questions whether it ever really endured such pain and whether it was really so recent (“The stiff Heart questions was it He, that bore, / And Yesterday, or Centuries before?”). The feet continue to plod mechanically, with a wooden way, and the heart feels a stone-like contentment. This, the speaker says, is “the Hour of Lead,” and if the person experiencing it survives this Hour, he or she will remember it in the same way that “Freezing persons” remember the snow: “First—Chill—then Stupor—then the letting go—.”
“After great pain” is structurally looser than most Dickinson poems: The iambic meter fades in places; line-length ranges from dimeter to pentameter; the rhyme scheme is haphazard and mostly utilizes couplets (stanza-by-stanza, it is AABB CDEFF GHII); and the middle stanza is five lines long, rather than Dickinson’s typical four. Like most other Dickinson poems, however, it uses the long rhythmic dash to indicate short pauses.
Perhaps Emily Dickinson’s greatest achievement as a poet is the record she left of her own inwardness; because of her extraordinary powers of self-observation and her extraordinary willingness to map her own feelings as accurately and honestly as she could, Dickinson has bequeathed us a multitude of hard, intense, and subtle poems, detailing complicated feelings rarely described by other poets. And yet, encountering these feelings in the compression chamber of a Dickinson poem, one recognizes them instantly. “After great pain, a formal feeling comes” describes the fragile emotional equilibrium that settles heavily over a survivor of recent trauma or profound grief.
Dickinson’s descriptive words lend a funereal feel to the poem: The emotion following pain is “formal,” one’s nerves feel like “Tombs,” one’s heart is stiff and disbelieving. The feet’s “Wooden way” evokes a wooden casket, and the final “like a stone” recalls a headstone. The speaker emphasizes the fragile state of a person experiencing the “formal feeling” by never referring to such people as whole human beings, detailing their bodies in objectified fragments (“The stiff Heart,” “The Feet, mechanical,” etc.).