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I felt a Funeral, in my Brain

by Emily Dickinson

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

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The effect of the poem is to make us feel for the dead person. I agree, but I think she's being even more subtle than that in this short poem. She doesn't want you to feel sorry for her, she wants you to feel sorry for the person whose funeral she's attending! It all comes together at the end when she says, "The box is lifted; creak, creak, creak--the heavy boots move slowly in procession; but it is the space which tolls!" That "it" refers back to "the funeral in my brain," and it falls on us to figure out what kind of funeral would make a person's brain toll.

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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...

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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 felt this senselessness of other people's death. The ultimate funeral is the funeral in the brain.  

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Dickinson's poem, "I felt a Funeral in my Brain" is essentially the poet"s attempt at capturing a speaker who has lost her mind. In using the imagery of a funeral and a number of literary techniques, such as repetition, alliteration, and even rhyme, the poet explores an abstract idea, losing one's mind, through concrete detail of a familiar act in the funeral service.

Funerals are mournful, a word the speaker actually uses, and marks the end of existence. But the speaker also establishes a negative connontation to this entire event vs. a celebration of life. Words such as "mourning", "treading", "beating", "creak", "solitary", highlight just a few instances where the speaker imposes the ominous loss of the mind, the slow slide into madness and loss of reality, which she gets at in the last stanza, "And then a plank in reason, broke..." So the reader is able to make sense of a familiar aspect of life, a funeral, and follow the death, a break from reality.

But there are also those literary techniques that contribute to such a reading and an impact on the reader who is attempting to follow the loss of the speaker's mind. The repetition emphasizes to the reader the growing concern and descent into madness: the mourners who are "treading, treading" or the drums that keeps "beating, beating" or the speaker who "dropped down and down." Here, the poet is able to use that looming, ominous language, and is then able to repeat, forcing the reader to consider the magnitude of this loss. With this repetition, is also reinforced by the alliteration that accompanies it, that repetition of sound at the beginning of words, again, emphasizing this uncontrollable slide: "And I and silence some strange race / Wrecked, solitary, here." The instance of "silence" and "strange" and "solitary" impress on the reader that madness, and a lonely one at that, is inevitable under the circumstances in which the speaker finds herself. 

And finally there is the rhyme scheme, which takes into consideration the actual words that rhyme. Words like "drum" and "numb" or "soul" and "toll" will again reinforce the break from reality. We become numb, as the reader, as the language beats on and on, connecting us to the feelings of the speaker; we understand the toll the soul is taking. As the poem marches on to the broken plank of reality, we don't ever feel that we can save the speaker, never feel that she will snap out of this or escape. Afterall, the poem is in past tense, so we know this has already occured and that the speaker dwells in a place where she has "finished knowing".

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