I Felt a Funeral, In My Brain by Emily Dickinson
This poem has always had different variants of interpretation: some critics say that Emily Dickinson wanted to show a funeral as a philosophical vision of human’s life (Cameron 1979, Cameron 1992) or the process of getting free (Ford 1997); others think that a funeral is a metaphor of the speaker’s descent into madness (Wolff 1988) or reaction to the great stress or dread (Bennett 1986).
The poem has its logic at the level of images, as well as in its formal organization. Together with other critics Wolff argues that the most obvious part of this creation is its subject — a person being buried. The only inconsistency with real life is that the ritual is reported here by the deceased herself, who sees mourners and not vice versa (“Emily Dickinson” 111). Cameron writes that the speaker’s speech is grammatically past tense, which makes it also, so to say, emotionally past tense (“Lyric Time” 89). Wolff thinks that what is really important, that we are able to understand true values of life only from the position of death (“Emily Dickinson” 113).
I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading — treading — till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through –
And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum –
Kept beating — beating — till I thought
My mind was going numb — (“The Poems” 168)
Wolff pays our attention to the fact that there are no distinct “others” (except for mourners), nothing but a lone speaker. No information about life of the deceased can be gathered from this funeral, the mourners are silent — they are just muffled figures, who move constantly “to and fro”, the poet repeats — “treading — treading”. The only sound during the funeral service is the relentless “beating — beating” (again repetition) of the toneless “Drum”, no other instruments are heard (“Emily Dickinson” 112).
However, the regularized process of the funeral is contrasted to the confused feelings and thoughts of the speaker, she is using inappropraiate combinations of words: “the funeral is “felt”; the “Mind” becomes “numb”; the coffin is lifted “across” the soul; “being” is reduced to “an Ear”, speaker and “Silence” become members of the same “strange Race” of creatures” (Wolff 112). Thus two lines of the poem, the familiar order of ritual and the mixed feelings used to define the speaker’s existence, function to balance each other.
Wolff stresses the importance of time, which is another distinct line in the poem. And whereas succession of the funeral and the disorder of the speaker’s mind are conveyed explicitly, time’s indifferent cruelty is delivered less directly — through absences and through syntactic and rhythmic structures. Immutable clock-time is conveyed grammatically. There is virtually no syntactic subordination in this poem; the few instances are either hypothetical (“As if”) or, more commonly, temporal (“till … when … till … then … then … then”). The insistent beat of “when” and “then” is intensifying the tattoo of ticking time. It becomes more insistent with each stanza and climaxes with the thumping of «and» that is concentrated in the fifth stanza (“And … And … And … And”) (“Emily Dickinson” 112).
We can look at the poem from the point of view of the speaker’s dying either physically or mentally — that is not of fundamental importance. We can interpret the same images differently.
We may suppose, that the speaker experiences the loss of self in the chaos of the unconscious or non-existence. Dickinson uses the metaphor of a funeral to represent the speaker’s sense that a part of her is dying. The fact that the the speaker is both observer of the funeral and its participant, indicates that the self is divided, logically, by the end of the poem, the self shatters into pieces.
On the other hand, we can think, that the mental state the speaker describes is like being buried alive: “the heightened awareness of sounds (treading, beating, creaking, tolling) and the sense of enclosure (“in my Brain,” they all were seated,” “a Box”) combine with other evidence in the poem to suggest that the mourners are conducting a funeral service for a speaker who is not yet dead (“My Mind was going numb,” “creak across my Soul”)” (Ford 29).
Ford focuses attention on the fact that the movement from the interior space of the funeral service to the exterior space of the graveyard quickens the drastic figurative change when “Space — began to toll”. The monotony of a ringing bell is close to the insistent treading, beating, and creaking that precede it. All of “Space” is tolling, not just a church bell. Space tolls as if “all the Heavens were a Bell”. The speaker has a momentary impression that reason is escaping or being lost. This time her mind, the source of reasoning, goes “numb”, a further deterioration in her condition (“Gender and The Poetics of Excess” 29).
And then I heard them lift a Box
And creak across my Soul
With those same Boots of Lead, again,
Then Space — began to toll, (“The Poems” 168)
Again, if we assume that a funeral marks the passage from one state to another (either life to death or sanity to insanity), then we can trace the process of the speaker’s loss of rationality in stanzas three and four. The last two lines of stanza four assess her condition; she sees herself as “wrecked, solitary”, “she felt her world split apart” — as Bennett expressed it (“My life a loaded gun” 68). Her alienation and inability to communicate are indicated by her being enveloped by silence.
As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race
Wrecked, solitary, here — (“The Poems” 168)
Guthrie while analyzing the fourth stanza, remarks that “the word “here” is a key word” (“Emily Dickinson’s Vision” 196), it is pronounced immediately before the narrator drops through “multiple levels of reality” (“Emily Dickinson’s Vision” 196) “and hit a World, at every plunge” (“The Poems” 168). The point of view from which the narrator describes the action in the fifth stanza, is a very different “here” from that in the fourth stanza (Guthrie 196).
Ford brought forward the idea, that before the final stanza the speaker has moved from the claustrophobic environment of the funeral (perhaps of the coffin) to the boundless environment of pure sound (“Gender and The Poetics of Excess” 29).
And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing — then — (“The Poems” 168)
The last stanza plays a large part in the picture of the poem. One hypothesis is that Dickinson uses the metaphor of standing on a plank over a precipice, to describe the speaker’s descent into death or irrationality. In other words, her hold on life or rationality is insecure. She falls past “worlds”, which may stand for her past; she is losing her connections to reality. Her descent is described as “plunges”, suggesting the speed and force of her fall into chaos (“got through knowing”). The last word of the poem, “then — ”, does not finish or end her experience but leaves opens the door for the future nightmares.
Wolff remembers that the image of the plank is taken from the iconography and symbolizes the path of spiritual salvation, and that is only through faith, we will be able to understand why it is here. As long as Dickinson renounces faith, her plank is a plank in reason, but it breaks because there could be no rational explanation to the state her reason is suffering (“Emily Dickinson” 113).
Still, there is a space for a thought that there happened the shift from interior to exterior space, as if the sides, lid, and bottom of the coffin, all made of planks, suddenly disappear, plunging the speaker into limitless and terrifying space, bringing freedom though. There is no full stop, maybe the poet didn’t know what is beyond this limit of “then”. Instead of a definite full stop there stands a significant dash.
- Bennett, Paula. My life a loaded gun: Dickinson, Plath, Rich, and female creativity. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986.
- Cameron, Sharon. Choosing Not Choosing: Dickinson’s Fascicles. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
- Cameron, Sharon. Lyric Time: Dickinson and the Limits of Genre. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979.
- Ford, Karen. Gender and The Poetics of Excess: Moments of Brocade. The University Press of Mississippi, 1997.
- Guthrie, James R. Emily Dickinson’s Vision: Illness and Identity in Her Poetry. University Press of Florida, 1998.
- The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Edited by R. W. Franklin. Harvard College, 1998.
- Wolff, Cynthia Griffin. Emily Dickinson. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1988.