True to Dickinson’s obsession with the self, “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” is the exploration of a personal experience of a haunting and profound nature: the descent into a complete loss of rational consciousness.
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In this paper, I will show that in light of the deliberate choice of diction, the metaphorical significance of the funeral, the interaction of the content with structure and form, the utilization of personal voice and the successful appropriation of the narrative poem sub-genre, the persona’s eventual madness offers the most plausible interpretation of the poem.
By subjecting the poem to a line by line analysis, it will also seek to establish the vulnerability of each and every line towards the successful unlocking of the poem’s meaning.
In order to make the painful process of loss of consciousness a systematic affair, Dickinson has segmented the experience into three main levels of consciousness: the physical, the intellectual and the metaphysical.
The most immediate, the physical, is presented in the first stanza. By using the word ‘brain,’ in “I felt a funeral, in my Brain” (Line 1) a physical part of the human anatomy, she foregrounds the almost physical reality of what is taking place in her brain.
She also reinforces this by the repetition of ‘treading’ in “Kept treading treading-treading-till it seemed” (Dickinson). The repeated word brings about the almost physical sensation of her brain being under someone’s feet, showing the physical discomfort that the persona was going through (Line 2).
“And mourners to and fro,” shows that the treading was sustained and was not to any particular end (Dickinson). This serves to emphasize the disturbingly painful nature of the back and forth, back and forth movement of these feet on the persona’s brain.
This then leads the reader to the second stanza and the second level of consciousness, the intellectual. The funeral service has now already begun but it is experienced as a thumping drum by the persona. What was referred to as ‘brain’ in the first stanza is now the ‘mind:’ “My mind was going numb-” (8) (Dickinson).
Funerals are formal events. They are informed by tradition, procedure and formality. The same can be said of intellectualism. It is a level of consciousness that requires these very virtues to be successfully applied. Her consciousness is no longer physical but it has been overtaken by the thumping of the funeral drum in her mind. A drum, continuously beaten in someone’s mind must present a pretty irksome experience.
This is so much so that her mind is going numb. This represents the loss of control that she is undergoing. She is losing control and she can feel it. Line 8 is also written in the passive, signifying the lack of agency on the part of the persona. She is simply an object, totally without control over what she is going through.
The third stanza begins with the end of the funeral service. The casket is being escorted to the grave: “And then I heard them lift a Box, /And creak across my Soul” (9-10) (Dickinson). The persona’s intellectual consciousness is now gone. She is now crossing over to the metaphysical. This is signified by the use of the word ‘soul.’ Its creaking shows the apparent weight her soul has to bear in its refusal to give in.
The reference to the ‘boots of lead’ in “With those same Boots of Lead, again, / Then Space–began to toll,” (11-12) refers to the apparent feeling of those carrying the casket on the wooden floor that is the persona’s soul (Dickinson). Lead must make boots that are vey heavy.
The effect it has on the soul must be savage, these boots also seem familiar to the persona due to the use of the word ‘again.’ It could be they were worn by the same mourners in the first stanza.
Line 12 tells us that there comes a time when the persona is only aware of space and it, space, begins to toll. The line is indicative of a commencement of chaos; the tolling must present a great din.
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Stanza four presents a shift from ‘Space’ to ‘Heavens:’ it is the final shift to the metaphysical realm. We are no longer dealing with physical reality: “as all the Heavens were a Bell, / And Being, but an Ear,” (13-14) (Dickinson). The ‘Heavens’ are now a bell and existence- Being- is nothing but ‘an Ear.’ This refers to the subject-object duality of existence (Dickinson).
The ‘Heavens’ represent the object: reality. ‘Being’ on the other hand represents the subject, the perceiver (Dickinson). The persona, the subject, and ‘Silence’ become one in an apparent complete lack of perception of reality in line 15. She has gone through the ultimate loss of consciousness.
She and ‘Silence’ are wrecked in a place known only by the adverb ‘here.’ They can’t leave it; they would have to be rescued out of it: “and I, and Silence, some strange Race, / Wrecked, solitary, here-” (15-16) (Dickinson).
Line 17 jolts us. It dramatizes the sense of loss of reason. The persona still had a bit of reason left. It has now snapped however. Dickinson here paints us the mental picture of someone falling through a floor that has just given in, the fall is into an abyss as implied by ‘down, and down’ in line 18. It suggests endlessness; a lack of limit or definition: “And then a Plank in Reason, broke, / And I dropped down, and down-” (17-18) (Dickinson).
The persona has fallen. The fall is endless; at every level of this fall however: “And hit a World, at every plunge” (19) (Dickinson). This suggests other levels of consciousness. Dickinson, by doing this, hints at the inability of sane minds to access these levels of reality.
The last line, “and Finished knowing–then-” (20) leaves us unsure of where the persona’s consciousness is (Dickinson). ‘Then’ is too indefinite to be helpful at all could be explained as a manifestation of the persona’s inability to be coherently communicative owing to her insanity or from her communicating at a totally different level from ours (Dickinson).
Of great importance in the realization of this meaning is the funeral metaphor employed by Dickinson. Funerals are segmented into sequential rites that build up to the ultimate burial of the deceased. Similarly, the act of losing one’s mind happens in stages akin to those that lead up to the lowering of the casket in a funeral. It begins with the physical, the intellectual and finally the metaphysical.
The loss of the persona’s mental capabilities progresses hand in hand with a funeral ceremony so that the imagined lowering of the casket into a grave coincides with the metaphorical falling of the persona into an abyss of multi-level mental consciousness.
In stanza 1, the persona is aware of the imminent loss of her mind. The beginning of this process is so profound that it almost feels physical. The imagined mourners are gathering in her mind, silently mingling amongst themselves before the funeral service begins.
They are grieving this imminent loss: “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain, / And Mourners to and fro, / Kept treading–treading–till it seemed, / That Sense was breaking through-” (1-4) (Dickinson). She experiences the treading of the mourners feet in an almost sensual manner. Line four alludes to the ability of the treading of these imagined mourners to break through from the imaginary world to the realistic.
The second stanza centers on the funeral service. The funeral service has begun, though to the persona it feels like a thumping ‘Drum.’
Stanza 3 tells the reader of the inability of the persona to influence events taking place in her life. She feels the casket containing her rationality lifted an action so painful that she feels her soul creak: “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,” (9-12) (Dickinson).
The last line of the stanza suggests the strong emotion that often overcomes mourners as they escort a casket to the grave. It is the moment of truth; it’s definitive of the whole funeral experience. Here, Dickinson has us feel that loss of control, that realization that something of great importance is about to happen.
Lastly, the last two stanzas conclude the experiences of the persona. The demise of her rational consciousness is done. We are no longer presented with the parallel events at the funeral. The associations between the two are now only implied. We are left to imagine the lowering of the casket; probably even it’s crashing into the open grave. The person’s world has gone haywire; the funeral of her mind is over.
Dickinson’s funeral metaphor works due to the infusion of aspects of narrative poetry. The poem follows plot of a classic narrative which comes complete with an exposition, rising action and climax. It takes us, logically and sequentially, through the experiences of the persona from the beginning of her mental breakdown to her ultimate inability to further communicate her experiences.
The resultant effect that the poem has on the reader, and therefore its eventual interpretation, would hardly have been achieved without the aid of confessional aspects. The poet offers deep and personal insights into her experiences without the intervention of a third person narrator.
The consistent use of ‘I’ through out the poem reminds us that we are having a rare insight into the persona’s private life and therefore heightens the significance of what we hear: “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,” (1), “Kept beating–beating–till I thought” (7), “And I dropped down, and down-” (18) (Dickinson).
The content of what is shared in the poem might be considered grotesque. Losing one’s mind, as metaphorically presented by Dickinson is akin to losing one’s soul. It is a shameful and therefore intensely private affair which she nonetheless shares with us. The power of the firsthand story, told in the poetesses’ personal voice results in an effect of profound significance.
While many more interpretations are likely to be arrived upon on the reading of this poem, I posit that the one presented here is the most plausible, one that takes care of every aspect of poetic craft employed by Dickinson.
Dickinson, Emily. “I Felt a Funeral, in the Brain.” Web.