I Felt a Funeral, In My Brain
The poem I Felt a Funeral, In My Brain by Emily Dickinson describes a psychological state. It depicts a condition of extreme anguish and mental disorder, a situation of psychological torment where the speaker feels all the oppression and powerlessness of a helpless victim and ultimately collapses.
The mental breakdown is seen by the poet as akin to losing consciousness. The critic Judith Farr views this poem as a ‘mindscape’, which takes as its subject the death of consciousness.
Indeed, the narrative is so structured, describing the sensations experienced at different stages on the way to the loss of perception.
It begins with ‘I felt’ and finishes with the loss of all sensation, noting on the way the failure of the various senses and organs of perception. Farr notes how physiologically accurate this is, corresponding to the stages of an approaching faint. The dizzy spell is prefaced by a mental numbness (the ‘treading – treading’ of the ‘Boots of Lead’). The ringing in the ears that precedes fainting is conveyed through the synaesthetic imagery of ‘Then Space – began to toll’. The fainting spell (‘I dropped down, and down’) and the sinking out of consciousness (‘hit a World, at every plunge’) concludes in the total loss of perception (‘and Finished knowing – then –’). Yet the concluding dash might suggest survival of some kind, perhaps the continuity of intellect, as Farr suggests, somehow surviving to record the event.
It is worth noting that ‘Brain’, ‘Mind’ and ‘Soul’ were interchangeable terms for the nineteenth-century artist. Indeed, an examination of the manuscript shows that Dickinson’s first choice for ‘Soul’ in line 10 was ‘Brain’. This experience of traumatic collapse has both psychological and religious connotations.
Dickinson uses the structure of a funeral service and funeral imagery to convey her theme: the box, the mourners, the plank, the burial – all the paraphernalia of a funeral. But this is a most unreal funeral service. Normally the funeral is sombre, respectful and caring and the ritual is designed to be comforting. But here the ‘Box’ is crudely impersonal and the ritual becomes a nightmare of unstoppable activity, as reflected in the grammatical structure of the poem (‘till’, ‘when’, ‘till’, ‘then’, ‘again’, ‘then’, ‘then’) and in the imagery of ceaseless activity (‘to and fro’, ‘treading – treading’, ‘kept beating – beating’). Even the sounds of the funeral service are experienced as activity as well as sound (‘Mourners treading’, ‘A Service, like a Drum –/Kept beating’, ‘lift a Box/And creak across my Soul/With those same Boots of Lead’, ‘Then Space – began to toll’). There isn’t a single still moment in the poem except for the marvellous image of cosmic alienation in lines 15 and 16.
This unrelenting activity is experienced as oppression by the speaker, who is powerless to react and must suffer what is being done to her. As John Robinson says, she is using the funeral service to define herself as a helpless victim. The sense of victimisation is further enhanced by the fact that what she suffers is only partially understood by her, though keenly felt and heard. The unreal strangeness of the imagery reflects the inscrutable nature of her sufferings (‘a Service, like a Drum’, ‘all the Heavens were a Bell’). The unique vantage point of the speaker here, as she is being buried, graphically reinforces this notion of a helpless victim. There is an element of gothic horror to this – a conscious victim being buried alive and the sensationalism of ‘creak across my Soul’ and ‘Boots of Lead’. All this adds to the quality of the mental trauma that is the poem’s main theme.
Some readers feel that the main focus of this poem is the actual experience of death, rather than any metaphorical exploration of psychological death: that the poem enacts approaching death, loss of the senses, etc. and that the experience is given an extra frisson of horror through the speaker’s unique vantage point from the coffin. Do you favour this literal interpretation? Perhaps it smacks too much of gothic sensationalism? Perhaps we can read the poem as addressing the issue of death in both the physical and psychological senses? What insights into death does the poem convey?
● An enactment of mental breakdown, a depiction of the intense suffering of psychological disintegration.
● The loss of order and meaning, intrinsic to breakdown: the sensation of tumbling through space, events have no properly understood cause, senses are confused, space tolls, a plank breaks, etc.
● A charting of the stages of death, the loss of sensation and perception.
● The nature of the solitary soul, adrift in the universe:
And I, and Silence, some strange Race
Wrecked, solitary, here –
This is a vision of lonely suffering, interpreted by some as the effort of the soul to understand its place in the universe.
● Oppression: the poet as a helpless victim, impotent sufferer.
● Human alienation: the lack of control over the world or one’s fate. The image of the living treated as if they were dead emphasises this extreme disunion between self and circumstances.
Questions and Answers
Q. What does the poem I felt a funeral in my brain mean?
Ans. Dickinson uses the metaphor of a funeral to represent the speaker’s sense that a part of her is dying, that is, her reason is being overwhelmed by the irrationality of the unconscious. She is both observer of the funeral and participant, indicating that the Self is divided.
Q. How would you describe the psychological or emotional experience of a funeral in the brain?
Ans. The central metaphor of a funeral in the brain establishes the speaker’s state of mind. The poem also evokes despair through physical metaphors. The funeral’s drum-like “beating – beating -” along with the mourner’s heavy “treading – treading -” affect the mind as if striking it.
Q. How does Dickinson use capitalization in I felt a funeral in my brain?
Ans. Dickinson’s structural choices develop a central idea of madness in “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain.” Dickinson capitalizes words that are not proper nouns; emphasizing these words makes the speaker seem strange. The repetition in the poem makes the speaker’s words seem slow.
Q. What elements of the funeral do you think the author is using to describe insanity?
Ans. The correct response is the one about loss. In the first two stanzas, the author clearly associates the sounds of the funeral with the feeling of her “mind going numb,” indicating that the funeral is associated with her losing her mind.