A critical reading of a classic Dickinson poem by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘I felt a Funeral, in my Brain’ is poem number 280 in Emily Dickinson’s Complete Poems. This intriguing poem presents a number of enigmas for the reader, like many of Emily Dickinson’s poems. In this post it is our intention to offer a short summary and analysis of ‘I felt a Funeral, in my Brain’ and to try to clear away some of the obscurities and ambiguities.
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 –
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,
As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race,
Wrecked, solitary, here –
And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing – then –
A brief summary of the poem quickly reveals how odd it is, even by Emily Dickinson’s wonderfully eccentric standards. But then ‘I felt a Funeral, in my Brain’ is about going mad, about losing one’s grip on reality and feeling sanity slide away – at least, in one interpretation or analysis of the poem.
In the first stanza, the poem’s speaker uses the metaphor of the funeral for what is going on inside her head (we will assume that the speaker is female here, though this is only surmise: Dickinson often uses male speakers in her poetry). Her sanity and reason have died, and the chaos inside her mind is like the mourners at a funeral walking backward and forward.
The insistent repetition of ‘treading – treading’ evokes the hammering and turbulence within the speaker’s brain. These mourners sit down and the service takes place, featuring first a drum beating and then – following the creaking lift of the lid of a box – a sound that reminds the speaker of a bell (suggesting the tolling of a funeral bell to announce someone’s death).
Yet, as so often with an Emily Dickinson poem, the meaning is not – cannot – be as straightforward as this. The funeral suggests the loss of something, but is it reason and sanity that are lost, or is it reason and sanity that kill off something else? Who, or what, is this ‘Funeral in my brain’ for? The poem withholds this information.
Note how at the end of that first stanza, Dickinson’s speaker says that ‘it seemed / That Sense was breaking through’. If sense – common sense, reason, sanity – is breaking through, that could suggest that they are making progress, that sense is conquering irrationality and it is unreason, rather than reason, that has died.
This is, perhaps, an inevitable part of getting old: we lose our sense of fun, our childlike irrationality as our mind hardens into reason and sense (and being sensible). Part of the problem lies in how we view the phrase ‘breaking through’, which could either mean ‘coming into view’ (like a shaft of sunlight through a gap in the curtains) or ‘falling and collapsing’ through something, such as the floorboards. (Note, in this connection, the image of the ‘plank’ later in the poem.)
What’s more, a funeral is traditionally a solemn and sober affair, formal and orderly: more evocative of sensible reason than wild irrationality. If irrationality (or madness) had broken through and taken over instead, wouldn’t we expect something more chaotic and disorderly to be going on than a funeral, with the mourners ‘seated’ and the mind going ‘numb’?
The latter parts of the poem seem to suggest that we were perhaps right first time, however, and that the speaker has lost her mind: the speaker finds herself along with ‘Silence’, solitary like a shipwrecked person. And then, perhaps helped along by this solitude and silence, a ‘Plank in Reason’ broke, and the speaker describes the following sensation as like falling through the floor. She loses her sense of being grounded and stable, falling ‘down, and down’. It appears that she has lost her reason. Yet the final line of Dickinson’s poem is ambiguous:
And Finished knowing – then –
‘Finished knowing’ as in stopped knowing something, or ended up by knowing something? ‘Finished knowing’ is ambiguous. Does the speaker gain or lose knowledge at the end of the poem? And if she does gain knowledge, knowledge of what?
‘I felt a Funeral in my Brain’ is one of Emily Dickinson’s most puzzling poems in that its meaning could be interpreted in two very divergent ways. The ambiguities aren’t simply a matter of difference in meaning, but of sheer opposition. Whose funeral is it anyway? Our analysis cannot answer that question. We welcome your thoughts on a truly troubling, but brilliant, poem.
About Emily Dickinson
Perhaps no other poet has attained such a high reputation after their death that was unknown to them during their lifetime. Born in 1830, Emily Dickinson lived her whole life within the few miles around her hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts. She never married, despite several romantic correspondences, and was better-known as a gardener than as a poet while she was alive.
Nevertheless, it’s not quite true (as it’s sometimes alleged) that none of Dickinson’s poems was published during her own lifetime. A handful – fewer than a dozen of some 1,800 poems she wrote in total – appeared in an 1864 anthology, Drum Beat, published to raise money for Union soldiers fighting in the Civil War. But it was four years after her death, in 1890, that a book of her poetry would appear before the American public for the first time and her posthumous career would begin to take off.
Dickinson collected around eight hundred of her poems into little manuscript books which she lovingly put together without telling anyone. Her poetry is instantly recognisable for her idiosyncratic use of dashes in place of other forms of punctuation. She frequently uses the four-line stanza (or quatrain), and, unusually for a nineteenth-century poet, utilises pararhyme or half-rhyme as often as full rhyme. The epitaph on Emily Dickinson’s gravestone, composed by the poet herself, features just two words: ‘called back’.
Continue to explore Dickinson’s poetry with Dickinson’s wonderful snake poem, ‘A narrow Fellow in the Grass’, her ‘My Life had stood – a Loaded Gun’., and her poem ‘Because I could not stop for Death’. If you want to own all of Dickinson’s wonderful poetry in a single volume, you can: we recommend the Faber edition of her Complete Poems.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Black/white photograph of Emily Dickinson by William C. North (1846/7), Wikimedia Commons.