Emily Dickinson's "After Great Pain, a Formal Feeling Comes," and "Eagle Poem" by Joy Harjo.
After Great Pain, a Formal Feeling Comes
Emily Dickinson is known for her ability -- through her poetry -- to recreate a feeling or an emotion that all humans feel at one time (albeit most individuals are not able to use appropriate language when a terribly hurtful or even excruciating event happens in life). In this poem she doesn't share with the reader exactly what happened to cause such distress in her life, but she doesn't have to share precisely what led to her poetic response, because the poem becomes universal. That is, anyone who has recently suffered a loss, or a tragic incident (someone died in a sudden terrible accident) can relate to Dickenson's poem because through metaphor, simile, irony, prosody (the rhythm of alliteration, for example) and imagery, the feeling is shared with the reader.
In the first line of the first stanza, Dickenson uses alliteration (a pair of "f" words) to emphasize one of the main points of the poem, that a "formal feeling" comes after a jolting human experience. This is something that is happening in the poem although there is no "I" or speaker per se. The suffering emphasized is not related to a human being (man, woman, or child) but rather to the parts of a body that all humans have.
All bodies have nerves, and when a poet says that nerves "sit ceremonious" that means (or sounds like it means) there is numbness in that body. A reader could well ask, are the nerves contemplating doing anything or are these nerves frozen from the pain? Nerves sitting as in a ceremony "like tombs" no doubt have been through something terrible. The use of the simile "like tombs" brings death into the picture, of course.
Speaking of tombs (and cemeteries), the imagery of a tomb presents a cold, unmoving unfeeling block of granite in a pasture full of these morbid stones. Also in that stanza, when Dickenson uses a "stiff heart" -- which certainly sounds like a dead person, at least dead when it comes to emotional life -- she then suggests that this stiff heart asks questions. A bizarre idea it is, for a stiff heart to question whether it was "He" (Jesus Christ) who "bore" the pain or was it the poet? And how long ago did Christ die -- or was it just yesterday, because the awful pain is still very much present. This is grim but beautifully done at the same time. The mind can actually switch on an image of Christ being crucified.
In the second stanza, when Dickinson describes feet as "wooden" and "mechanical," those metaphors bring images to the reader's mind; going about one's daily activities with no feeling, just feet carrying a person here and there mechanically, like a robot. Robots of course have no feeling but they continue to move about and cover ground. The feet "ought" to move so they do, and "regardless grown" seems to suggest that the feet (and the person) no longer have any interest in anything. The second powerful simile used ("like a stone") takes the mind of the reader back to those tombs in the graveyard. "Like a stone" is preceded by an ironic phrase, "quartz contentment" -- which is ironic because quartz is a stone (this image is used several times) and of course has no feeling, so how can quartz be content? It can't be content.
The third stanza is interesting because "hour of lead" suggests that time has been frozen or locked into some emotional frame of reference. Is it an oxymoron? Time is going by very slowly although the poet would obviously like it to move faster so that individual can begin to get out of this terrible emotional place. "If outlived" is another grim image because the poet won't remember this event unless the poet can...
When someone is hit with a dramatically hurtful event the feeling is one of a need for escape, get me out of here, but when time won't move, that person is stuck in the black hole of misery.
Why does Dickinson use "freezing persons" who remember the feeling from snow? Previously the poet is just one individual (or readers suppose so), but now perhaps the poet is saying that others, many maybe, have been in this predicament. "Freezing" is not frozen, so the experience is ongoing; and when those who are freezing live through it, they can recollect first being chilly, then the person can remember a sense of "stupor" (being numbed by the cold, which takes the reader back to the first stanza when nerves are "like tombs" and the heart is stiff).
The "letting go" can mean several things, but death is certainly one of those things. To realize that one can't fight the bitter cold any longer, but can't escape that icy situation, the heart and mind simply let go of the struggle and slip into death.
Compared and contrasted with Dickinson's poem, this poem presents a radically different theme and series of emotions. It should be remembered that Harjo is a member of the Creek tribe, and she sees the ecology (natural world) as a place where love is sent back from the cosmos to the individual, who in turn should love the earth.
Meanwhile, is Harjo being coy in the first few lines? She is saying that a mere prayer can open one's senses up to the universe. But wait, even though the image of the sun, moon and earth are supposed to be more readily apparent during a prayer, there is obviously more that the poet is not seeing -- and that transfers into the mind of the careful reader, that there is more we are not seeing and understanding about the universe.
Is she telling the reader how to pray? Or what prayer can bring to the spirit? Any of a series of possible explanations are appropriate here. Opening one's self up to God (or the Great Spirit in Native American language) is making a connection with the universe through God, but it is also a reminder that the voice inside a person is rarely understood or fully utilized.
Something inside of us cries out to be understand and to be revealed: that voice is hidden though it is "steadily growing" in "circles of motion" when we pray; but the voice is not head as a language when a person prays. The "whole voice" metaphor is powerful in this poem because it is commonly understood that humans only use a small fraction of their potential intellect and senses. When she uses "circles of motion," it is like that was her last attempt at explaining the depth that is available through a prayer to the earth, sky and moon.
When she launches into the line, "Like eagle that Sunday morning," it seems she is not reverting to an image that is very well understood by all people: humans know what birds (big or small) do and how they fly. And by switching to a real-world image the mind of the reader can easily transition from the prayer issues discussed earlier (metaphysical images of the hidden voice that cannot be heard or used) to a big bird, an eagle, the symbol used for the American nation.
If a reader was a bit lost in the first half of the poem, thinking maybe this is a metaphor for a person hungry to understand God or prayer or what lies beneath the obvious earthly images, there can be no question what the majestic flight of a huge bird brings to mind. That eagle "Kept our hearts clean with sacred wings," she writes. This is the…
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