Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.
Emily Dickinson and a Summary of "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain, (340)"
"I felt a Funeral, in my Brain" is a popular Emily Dickinson poem that focuses on the loss of self—the death of something vital. The imagined funeral in the speaker's brain is a symbol of this loss, so it is figurative in nature.
As with many of her poems, this one has no definitive meaning; it is open-ended. It has her usual unique syntax with plenty of dashes, punctuation and repetition in a tightly controlled form.
Over time, many ideas have been put forward as to the meaning of this poem. Some think it highlights someone who has been buried alive and is listening to the religious service, but this is unlikely given that revealing first line—this is all psycho-emotional. Others claim it is based on a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne, an American writer who penned The Hollow of the Three Hills and published it in The Salem Gazette in 1830. It's about a woman who cannot get over the loss of her baby, who is wracked by guilt and sees sacrifice as the only way out. The hollow is seen as the place where she sank down with grief.
Dickinson grew up surrounded by books, among them some by this very author. We know from her correspondence that she read Hawthorne’s work, but her only mention of it on record is in a letter from December 1879 to her friend Thomas Higginson (622) to say that “Hawthorne appalls—entices."
There are some common elements to both story and poem—treading feet, bells, a funeral procession—plus the deep, dark pool in the hollow is a place where certain evil subjects met to perform an "impious baptismal rite . . ." this is where the main character, a lady full of guilt, meets with an old crone. The lady is distraught and has come in search of help. This is what she says to the old crone:
"I am a stranger in this land, as you know," said she at length. "Whence I come it matters not; but I have left those behind me with whom my fate was intimately bound, and from whom I am cut off forever. There is a weight in my bosom that I cannot away with, and I have come hither to inquire of their welfare."
There's no doubting the parallels here—of the lady becoming unconscious as she lays her head on the crone's knees, and of her estrangement from family and the loss of her baby as the cause of the funeral scene. (See Dan McCall's article in The New England Quarterly (42), September 1969).
The bottom line is that no concrete proof exists that Emily Dickinson read this story and was directly influenced by it. What might be worth considering, however, is the common ground the lady in the story and the reclusive poet shared: Both were rebels, and both were cut off from their loved ones.
In the story, this is factually true for the main protagonist; in Dickinson's case, as a poet and freethinker, she only felt cut off. Like many poets, she had a natural empathy with those on the outside and could readily embrace another persona in her poems.
In a letter, Dickinson wrote to her friend Thomas Higginson in July 1862: “When I state myself, as the representative of the verse, it does not mean me, but a supposed person”. She was also unwilling to follow conventional church-going fashions. The religious awakening that swept Amherst in the late 1840s left Dickinson lamenting in a letter to Jane Humphrey in 1850:
"Christ is calling everyone here, all my companions have answered, even my darling Vinnie believes she loves, and trusts him, and I am standing alone in rebellion" (L35).
"I felt a Funeral, in my Brain" could well be a portrayal of a person on the outside looking in and feeling a profound loss as the masses of orthodoxy with boots of lead pound on. Yet the speaker is undoubtedly experiencing some strange new worlds, resulting in a transformation of sorts.
Throughout this analysis, I have used the number system for Dickinson's poems found in the 1998 anthology, The Poems of Emily Dickinson by Ralph W. Franklin, HUP, hence for example this poem (F340).
Emily Dickinson and the Idea of Death in Her Poetry
Dickinson wrote many poems on the subjects of death, mourning and funerals but these were not typically Victorian poems, which tended to be sentimental and mawkish. Though compassionate and supportive in her letters to people who had lost friends and relatives, her poetry reflects an unusually modern approach to the subject of bereavement and the afterlife.
Remember that in Christian Victorian society, the emphasis was on the deceased's soul journeying into Heaven to meet the Maker, Christ Jesus. This spirit realm, for Dickinson, did not really exist. She preferred to focus on the psychic life of an individual and use her imagination to animate an existence. Here are several examples of Dickinson's 'death' poems.
"I often passed the village, (F41)"
The speaker, who has died early and is in the grave, invites her friend Dollie to join her:
"Trust the loving promise
Underneath the mould . . ."
"Twas just this time, last year, I died, (F344)"
The speaker again is beyond the grave and wants loved ones to join her:
"just this time, some perfect year—
Themself, should come to me."
"The grave my little cottage is, (F1784)"
The speaker is again "in" the grave and is waiting, "Keeping house' for thee."
"I felt a Funeral, in my Brain"
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 -
In this section, we'll break the poem down stanza by stanza and examine some of its possible meanings and interpretations.
That first line is a curiously dark mix of life and death as the first-person speaker sets the tone for the entire poem. This has to be a metaphorical funeral, what with the mind being at a loss—the death of a part of the psyche?
The mourners are a symbol of a collective, a group, a set of thoughts that are applying pressure, repeatedly treading, attempting to break through—trying to make the speaker see sense?
There's no doubt the tone is oppressive, increasingly so as the mourners now are seated and a "Service, like a Drum" begins to beat. The repeated "beating - beating -" reinforces the idea of pressure and intensity.
The reference to the mind reflects the psychological nature of this experience. Here is a person subject to a ritual—there is the danger of mental oblivion? Or is she so tired of hearing that drum that she thinks her mind might lose all feeling?
A box is lifted by the mourners. Is it a coffin/casket? A ritual box? Or is this the coffin being carried out, causing a curious sensation for the speaker, her soul being affected?
Those "Boots of Lead" are significant. In the context of oppression (and knowing that Dickinson herself in real life was a natural non-conformist when it came to religion), the mourners are those mainstream church-goers and Christian followers . . . think onward Christian soldiers marching as to war—adding to the overall theme of psychic loss.
Space itself is introduced, tolling. Personal space is all-important to introverts and those who feel threatened. The space tolling like a bell is a most unusual image to frame. Anyone who has stood close to church bells tolling full-tilt on a Sunday morning will know all too well how powerful a sound is created.
This notion of an almighty giant sound, the tolling of the bell, is underlined. The speaker is "but an Ear," a surreal image but one that emphasises the them-versus-me theme. This backs up the previous stanza's last line—the bells, the voice of God if you will, taking over everything, including heaven. There is the speaker, with "Silence, some strange Race." are these the rebels, the aliens, feeling wrecked?
Some of the imagery in this poem is remarkable, like something out of Alice . . . but this is no wonderland; this is the gradual loss of the mind, the reasoning mind. The speaker drops down . . . a sensation of falling . . . hitting a world . . . are these psychological/emotional states? different phases of possible mental breakdown?
The loosely ended last line leaves the reader in limbo. The speaker has finished knowing—knowing that her unconventional stance is the right one for her. There is no ascent, no climbing back to a normal state of things.
The speaker has survived, endured, and perhaps reached that place where knowing is enough, despite the dark, the descent into an unknown place, the battle between wholeness and fragmentation for the moment, suspended.
© 2020 Andrew Spacey