“I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” was first published in 1896. Because Emily Dickinson lived a life of great privacy and only published a handful of poems in her lifetime, the exact year of its composition is unknown; most scholars agree that it was written around 1861.
Like many of Dickinson’s other poems, “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” explores the workings of the human mind under stress and attempts to replicate the stages of a mental breakdown through the overall metaphor of a funeral. The common rituals of a funeral are used by Dickinson to mark the stages of the speaker’s mental collapse until she faces a destruction that no words can articulate. As the metaphorical funeral begins and progresses, the speaker’s “mind” grows “numb” until her final remark stops in mid-sentence. The poem is a staple in Dickinson’s canon and reflects her ability to replicate human consciousness in a controlled poetic form. Like her poems “After great pain, a formal feeling comes—”, “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers—” and “I felt a Cleaving in my Mind—”, “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” uses concrete language and imagery to explore abstract issues.
The event that the funeral is used to describe, however, does not have to be interpreted as a mental breakdown. The poem allows for other readings of what constitutes the “funeral,” such as an individual’s being assaulted by an idea that threatens to destroy all of his or her dearly held assumptions or a mind’s inability to cope with the pressures placed upon it from the outside world. The poem’s ambiguities allow for multiple readings, all of which, however, converge in the idea that the speaker’s brain is ceremoniously “laid to rest” by the poem’s conclusion.