Poems of Emily Dickinson (Selected) | Study Guide

Emily Dickinson

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I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,

Course Hero Literature Instructor Russell Jaffe provides an in-depth summary and analysis of Emily Dickinson's poem "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain."

Poems of Emily Dickinson (Selected) | I felt a Funeral, in my Brain, | Summary

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Summary

This poem, which consists of five stanzas of ballad meter, documents the process of a mental breakdown or possibly a fainting spell through the conceit of a deceased person narrating the events at her own funeral. She hears the solemn steps of mourners, whose tread is then replaced by the drumlike "beating" sounds of a funeral service, which make her feel as if her mind were "going numb." The sounds then change to creaking as her coffin is carried, then heavy footsteps again, and the overwhelming tolling of a bell. The speaker's consciousness diminishes so that is just an ear hearing this sound, which is replaced by silence. She then feels the sensation of falling, or being "dropped down." Finally reason breaks down, and she ceases to be conscious of anything.

Analysis

The conceit of the funeral is delivered in one long sentence strung together with a series of ands, beginning in a room full of people and sound. At the end there is only the speaker in a world of silence.

Unusual for a poet who so accurately portrays visual detail, this poem is all sound, no sights. Instead of reporting clearly about what she sees, it's almost as if she is not witnessing events firsthand: she "felt a Funeral"; it "seemed / That Sense was breaking through"; she "heard them lift a Box." By relating events as if the speaker were one step removed from full perception of reality, the poem documents the stages of loss of perception, going from consciousness to semiconsciousness to unconsciousness, and ending at a moment when the process of thinking suddenly ceases.

The reader is immediately thrown off guard by the first clause, which is strikingly unusual in its diction: the speaker states she "feels" a "funeral." One might see a funeral, or possibly hear a funeral, but what does it mean to "feel" a funeral, especially in one's brain? As the poem proceeds, readers sense the speaker is discussing painful or uncomfortable sensations in her head. The poem begins with a gathering of mourners "treading" through the speaker's brain, the pain becoming so unbearable her mind goes numb. At this point she no longer speaks of her brain and her mind but of "Space," "all the Heavens," and "Being," which suggest a loss of, or descent from, consciousness. In the fourth stanza she is alone, in silence, no longer among the mourners. Finally, in the last stanza, when the "Plank in Reason" breaks, she plunges into unconsciousness. Although the poem seems to deal with the loss of consciousness, Dickinson presents it in a manner reminiscent of the finality of death.

The poem adheres, for the most part, to Dickinson's typical use of ballad meter: throughout the poem the steady iambic meter seems to beat like a drum. The sounds are portrayed as repetitive and wearisome and come to resemble an unbearable headache. The mourners go "to and fro" and keep "treading—treading" through the speaker's head. Next she says the service seems to be "beating" repetitively, "like a Drum," until her mind seems to go numb. In the third stanza she hears the "Boots of Lead, again." Finally there is only sound, the speaker is an ear, and nothing but silence remains before reason drops away.

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