‘was it He, that bore,’

from Emily Dickinson – After great pain a formal feeling comes (J341, F372) on Rap Genius

Meaning

Intense pain or grief dislocates our sense of identity; the trauma seems as if it might have happened to someone else.

Though we should be wary of reading too much into Dickinson’s always-eccentric capitalization, “He” in this case is a possible reference to God, or Christ in the image of suffering during his crucifixion. If so, it suggests that both speaker and Christ have experienced a deep, partly symbolic pain. In a darker light, we might read it as having skeptical or sarcastic undertones—in fact, suggesting that her suffering seems worse than Christ’s. This is quite contrary to traditional theology, which often displays Christ’s sacrifice as the ultimate representation of suffering and atonement.

This is an especially interesting interpretation considering Dickinson’s fraught, idiosyncratic relationship with religion. Dickinson did not join the church at the time that a great religious revival was sweeping through New England, although the majority of her friends and family members did. Throughout her poetic life, she continued to harbor many emotions towards religion, including faithfulness, doubt, understanding, and anger. Rather than attending services for the rest of her life, she observed the Sabbath “staying at home.”

To help improve the meaning of these lyrics, visit “After great pain a formal feeling comes (J341, F372)” by Emily Dickinson and leave a comment on the lyrics box