I felt a Funeral, in my Brain Questions and Answers
by Emily Dickinson

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What impact does the poem "I Felt a Funeral in my Brain" by Emily Dickinson have on the reader?

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August Billingsley, Ph.D. eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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I think being passive is a valid response to this brilliant poem by Emily Dickinson. Indeed, every time I read her poems, even re-readthem I am struck almost dumb! Talk about passivity!

There have been critical efforts to see the funeral in this poem as a metaphor for mental breakdown (see enotes on this). But I am very tempted to read this poem the other way round: mental breakdown as a metaphor for funeral!

Let's try reading the poem - again!

I felt a funeral in my brain

And mourners to and fro

Kept treading - treading - till it seems

That sense was breaking through.

To those who do not expect death, death is senseless; a needless happening that reduces us -- those who are alive --to numbness. We tread in silence, meeting other mourners who also tread, trying to make sense of why this happened.

I am suggesting that this utterly frustrating, agonizing struggle to make sense of the senseless is being represented in Dickinson's poem as a mental breakdown. It's the mental breakdown that is the metaphor here, not the other way round.

The sense breaking through is not the mourner's. It is the dead person's. How may a dead person have "sense breaking through?" I hear you ask. In Dickinson's other poems too she, the Iin the poem, has died. In fact, she is one of the very few poets that I know of who gives her readers a dead person's perspective ("I died for beauty but was scarce..." "I heard a fly buzz when I died.") I think it is through the persona of death that Dickinson gives his readers a sense of detatchedness from life's happenings. Reading on...

"Service like a drum...my mind was going numb." These lines further strengthen a dual feeling: numbess from death, but also numbness from the mindless service that is conducted in a stacato beat, like that of a drum. "I am dead," the poet seems to say, "leave me alone."

The box is lifted...it creaks...the heavy boots move slowly in procession; but it is the spacewhich tolls! Commentators have long admired this poet's brilliant tendency to surprise us with the least expected word. I call it "lexical slant" (from lexicon: word; and slant:when poets rhyme a word with another word that slightly veers away from the rhyming sound, like "rhyme" with "trying.") Bells toll when someone dies; but here thespace tolls; perhaps she means that the space in her head is vibrating, trembling mentally.

Finally, in the last stanza, "a plank in reason broke." This image accomplishes two meanings simultaneously: one, it underscores the senselessness of death, something with which she began the poem; but two, it also completes the metaphor of complete mental breakdown of reason.

I know that at my age, many people have...

(The entire section contains 2 answers and 934 words.)

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