“I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” is a poem in which Dickinson attempts to render into formal poetic language the experience of a mind facing its own collapse; the opening stanza presents the metaphor of a funeral that is used throughout the poem to convey the sense of this breakdown to the reader. Brain here refers to both the concrete physical organ and to the abstract idea of the speaker’s mind; such dual meanings are used throughout the poem to convey the physical and mental effects of the breakdown. Losing one’s reason is like a funeral: the final interment and burial of rational thought. The mourners can be read as symbols of the events or ideas that bring on the speaker’s collapse; such events or ideas are incessant (they keep “treading—treading”) and continue until the speaker begins to realize what is happening. Her “sense” (or knowledge) of what is occurring begins “breaking through” to culminate in some kind of understanding about her impending devastation. Like the word brain, which has two meanings, the word sense can also refer to the speaker’s physical senses, which are likewise affected by the mourners plaguing her mind.
As the opening lines set up the funeral as an overall metaphor for the speaker’s breakdown, subsequent stanzas refer to specific parts of the funeral ritual to further convey the speaker’s experience. This stanza dramatizes the speaker’s growing fears and mental instability primarily through the use of sound. The mourners are all seated, representing a quiet moment, perhaps marking the end of the speaker’s initial panic or mental chaos. However, the respite is short-lived, and the “Service, like a Drum” begins a fresh assault on both her physical senses and mind. The sound of the drum, like the tread of the mourners, is another attack on her sanity, an attack so fierce that she feels her mind “going numb.” Numbness is a physical sensation that stands as another example of the speaker’s struggle to convey her experience in understandable physical terms.
The speaker is now in what seems to be a state of shock, stunned and still like a corpse being readied for burial. However, in terms of the metaphorical funeral, her senses are still working, and again she uses the sense of hearing to describe the next stage of her breakdown. She hears the pallbearers “lift a Box,” the coffin in which, perhaps, her formerly sane self is contained. These men then “creak across” her soul, which calls to mind the previous sounds of “treading—treading” and “beating— beating”; like those sounds, this creaking is unpleasant because it is the result of men with heavy “boots of lead” trampling over her. What is being trampled upon is the speaker’s soul; the scope of the breakdown has expanded to include her entire conception of her own existence.
These lines describe the moment in the speaker’s collapse when she passes from the recognizable world of rationality to a state of mind conveyable only through similes and metaphors, even more strange than those previously offered. In the real, physical world, church bells are sometimes rung as a coffin is carried to a burial plot; these same bells are ringing here but are so loud that the speaker can only describe the sound as if all space is beginning to “toll.” Note how the sounds of the poem have grown increasingly louder and more menacing. The tolling is so loud, in fact, that “all the heavens” seem to be one great “bell,” and the speaker seems to be an “ear,” open to the barrage of noise that assaults it. As the speaker now has no hope of shutting out the dreadful tolling of the bells, the speaker’s soul has no hope of shutting out the madness that has possessed it. As funeral bells toll to mark the end of a human life, so the bells toll here for the figurative death of the speaker’s reason and sense of self.
The speaker then finds herself...
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