The intricate and subtle meanings in poetry are created not only by figures of speech but also by structural elements, which include form, meter, and rhyme. Despite their outward formality, those structural elements, when organized and arranged accordingly, help to emphasize certain poetic ideas and to bring forth the needed mood and emotion.
An example of a creative application of form, meter, and rhyme can be discovered in Emily Dickinson’s poem “After Great Pain, a Formal Feeling Comes”. Combined together, those structural elements assist the poetess in developing a sense of numbness that creeps over a grieving person who loses the sense of time and stiffens in the freezing embrace of death.
The form of the poem comprises three stanzas of unequal length. The first and the last stanzas are both four-line quatrains, while the second stanza is a five-line cinquain. Such unevenness in the quantity of lines immediately turns the reader’s attention to the middle stanza and makes the reader wonder over the reasons for such choice.
The answer may be found in the fact that by making the middle stanza longer, Dickinson attempts to emphasize its meaning as a lengthy description of numbness. While reading this prolonged stanza longer as compared to the four-line verses surrounding it, the reader literally experiences the slowness of the motions impeded by suffering and grief.
The meter of Dickinson’s poem demonstrates constant fluctuation without much stability and evenness. The metrical foot of iamb is the basis of the poem but is often latent by semi-accents, as if to demonstrate the interruptions in the narrator’s breath. The line-length is also uneven, ranging from dimeter in the third and second lines of the middle stanza to as long as pentameter in the final two lines of the poem (Dickinson, 2006, p. 168).
Such difference in line-length can be viewed as the desire to show how emotionally unstable this state of numbness is and how thoughts occurring to the narrator differ in length depending on the level of rigor. Moreover, to emphasize the interrupted train of thought experienced by the narrator, Dickinson employs long rhythmic dashes that create semantic pauses. These pauses accumulate especially in the last line of the conclusive stanza, as if showing the final numbness of the grieving person.
The rhyme scheme of the poem additionally contributes to the feelings of distress and affliction. While the first stanza demonstrates a relative stability in rhyme AABB, the subsequent verses feature only two last lines rhymed in each, as CDEFF and GHII.
Apart from an obviously unstable rhyming scheme, Dickinson employs such sound pattern as alliteration in order to put additional emphasis on certain meaningful words. Thus, for example, in the first line of the poem the sound ‘f’ is dominant to attract the reader’s attention to the words “formal feeling” which are the key subject of the poem (Dickinson, 2006, p. 168).
Further on, the stanza features the hissing sound of ‘s’ which reminds of the rustling ancient runes, as well as the sound ‘h’ in words “Heart” and “He” which are thus linked to symbolize a living being whose heart became numb in suffering (Dickinson, 2006, p. 168).
Dickinson’s skillful treatment of formal structural elements produce an undisputedly significant impact on the way the reader perceives the ideas and emotions of the poem. The semantic accents placed by the form, the meter, and the rhyme scheme turn attention to the numbness and unevenness of the narration which are the key emotional characteristics of “After Great Pain, a Formal Feeling Comes”.
Dickinson, E. (2006). After great pain, a formal feeling comes. In D. Lehman (Ed.), The Oxford Book of American Poetry (p. 168). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.