Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2210
William Wordsworth’s famous preface to his Lyrical Ballads (1798) contains his much-quoted definition of good poetry:
Since Dickinson cannot truly replicate insanity, she instead chooses to portray it as a physical sensation; imagine trying to convey the sense of a terrible headache to one who has never had one, and then the logic behind Dickinson’s choice of metaphor becomes clearer.
Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility: the emotion is contemplated till by a species of reaction the tranquility gradually disappears, and an emotion, similar to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does actually exist in the mind.
In other words, the poet’s task is to recreate an emotion or sensation from a removed point-of-view (since someone feeling intense emotions cannot pause and then carefully compose a piece of verse) and, through the language of his or her poem, replicate that emotion or sensation in the mind of the reader. This definition suits many types of poems by many types of poets: a poet who seeks to replicate a sense of sorrow, for example, can use language that will create a sense of sorrow in the reader and thus have his work meet Wordsworth’s criteria. Wordsworth’s definition does, however, raise an interesting question about those poets who seek to replicate complex mental processes, for very few people (if any at all) actually think in words or phrases (much less poetic ones), and therefore any poetic replication of an individual’s mind must, by its very nature, fall short of the process being described. Such poets offer their readers an imitation of the mind’s working—not a poetic production and then recreation of the mind itself. This makes the subject of the poet’s contemplation a difficult thing to convey, since, by its very nature, poems are ordered, grammatical, and formalized, completely unlike the human mind, which is often disordered, ungrammatical, and free-flowing.
Dickinson faced this challenge of replicating consciousness in a number of poems, among them one in which she attempts to convey the sensation of memory loss or even the loss of one’s rational powers:
I Felt a Cleaving in my Mind—
As if my Brain had split—
I tried to match it—Seam by Seam—
But could not make them fit.
The thought behind, I strove to join
Unto the thought before—
But Sequence raveled out of Sound
Like Balls—upon a Floor.
Here, the inability to think is likened to a “cleaving in the mind,” but even this is a questionable representation of the event, for to truly replicate something like the event being described would require language that created the same experience in the reader. If this happened, there would be no poem, only a scattering of images that did not form an artistic and aesthetic whole.
How a poet conveys the workings of any individual’s mind is a tricky business, but the challenge becomes greater when the poet attempts to portray a mind on the brink of insanity or a total breakdown of rationality. Even Shakespeare faced this problem: in Hamlet; for example, the title character pauses during his assault on Ophelia (and on the duplicity of women in general) to state, “Go to, I’ll no more on’t: it hath made me mad.” This moment of self-realization is certainly dramatic but psychologically suspect, for could a mind so tortured by its own destruction look outside itself and comment on its failures?
The same problem occurs in a comic vein in Twelfth Night, when Feste the clown is asked to read a letter from the “mad” Malvolio and does so in a loud and “mad” voice; after being asked by his mistress why he reads in such a tone, Feste remarks, “I do read but madness. And your ladyship will have it as it ought to be, you must allow vox,” or the letter to be read in a presumably mad voice. The problem here is the same as in Hamlet: if Malvolio is truly mad, how can Feste hope to convey this madness to his listeners without some sort of “vox” or other device? Neither Hamlet nor Feste are recollecting the insanity before them in tranquility but are instead forced by their creator to tackle a problem that he himself has a difficult time surmounting.
In literature, even the maddest of the mad often speak and think in ways that, viewed objectively, seem sane by virtue of their own self-recognition and orderly presentation. Shakespeare seems to have tackled the problem to some degree in Othello, when the title character—faced with the “proof” of his wife’s infidelity—speaks in jumbled and fragmentary prose before falling to the ground in some sort of seizure, but even this is a physical depiction of Othello’s breakdown and not a depiction in words of the experience of the breakdown itself.
Dickinson’s “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” presents the same problems to its author and reader. If Dickinson is truly interested in replicating the experience of madness (or any mental, emotional, or spiritual breakdown), her method is very strange, since the poem is written in a regular meter with a regular rhyme scheme and regular grammatical structures. Presumably the speaker is telling her story from a point in time after her mental collapse, an idea that justifies the poem’s form only if the reader interprets the final line (“And Finished knowing—then—”) to mean “I finished knowing anything for sure after that terrible incident” and not the equally valid interpretation in which the final “then—” marks the speaker’s transition to a mental state where the representation of one’s mind through language becomes impossible.
So how, then, is a reader to approach the poem? First, a reader must recognize the poem as un-Wordsworthian in its aims and design: while the sensitive reader will surely feel the horror of the speaker’s predicament, the reader and speaker will never truly meet in that place where the poet’s subject of contemplation really does exist in the reader’s mind. (This is not to dismiss Dickinson’s achievement in this powerful poem, but to clarify how it should be read.) The reader must then understand that the poem is an attempt to formalize a complex and devastating mental process in familiar, recognizable images and sensations. If the poem seems a failure because it does not succeed in Wordsworthian terms, this is only because no poem depicting madness can fully replicate its subject; the best a poet can do is describe what the subject is like in a way that will make the reader appreciate it more fully than he or she did before reading about it.
Once a reader understands how to approach the poem, he or she can then examine the ways in which Dickinson uses familiar poetic devices to replicate the subject of her contemplation. The images chosen here by Dickinson all relate to a funeral: a common ritual, the devastating emotional nature of which is appropriate for a poem about the devastation of the speaker’s mind. The funeral is entirely metaphoric; it is something like what the speaker felt in her brain when her mental troubles began. The metaphor of a funeral is also appropriate since a funeral is a ritual in which various stages and rites are completed before the final interment of the body; this corresponds to the various stages through which the speaker’s mind passes before its final interment into the graveyard of madness. For example, the mourners that keep “treading—treading” in her brain (with their “Boots of Lead”) represent the first signs of the impending catastrophe. Since Dickinson cannot truly replicate insanity, she instead chooses to portray it as a physical sensation. Imagine trying to convey the sense of a terrible headache to one who has never had one, and then the logic behind Dickinson’s choice of metaphor becomes clearer.
At this early stage of her breakdown, the speaker seemed to feel that “sense was breaking through,” and that some of her reason was battling with the mourners who plagued her. This moment is very much like Hamlet’s “It hath made me mad” in its self-reflexiveness. However, the word sense can also refer to the five senses, in which case the remark about her sense “breaking through” conveys the idea that her breakdown can only be portrayed in terms of an explosion of physical feeling, and physical pain is something that many readers can appreciate and imagine more easily than mental collapse. Either way, the funeral has begun and will not end until the speaker’s mind is buried.
The remainder of the poem uses familiar components of the funeral ritual to convey the speaker’s increased mental pressures and eventual devastation. After the mourners have arrived, the service begins. This service, however, is not a softly spoken prayer or eulogy, but rather something “like a Drum” that incessantly keeps “beating—beating” in the speaker’s ears until she finds her mind is “going numb.” Again, Dickinson resorts to the language of physical sensations to convey the impossible-to-replicate mental processes. This mingling of the mental and the physical is continued when Dickinson moves to the next stage of the funeral ritual: the carrying of the casket to the gravesite. The pallbearers “creak across” the speaker’s soul with “Boots of Lead.” Again, the impending breakdown is likened to loud noise, and this noise grows intolerable when the next part of the ritual, the tolling of the funeral bell, begins.
The bell here is so loud and threatening that it seems “As all the Heavens” are one great bell and the speaker’s whole being is “but an Ear.” The physical pain that must accompany such a situation is used in place of an outright description of mental pain. The bell is so loud, in fact, that silence seems a member of “some strange Race.” The speaker cannot recall a time when she could not physically hear the tolling of the bell, as she cannot mentally recall what her mind was like before its “funeral” began. The casket sits ready for burial and the speaker sits on the verge of total mental destruction.
Appropriately enough, the final stanza uses the last part of the funeral ritual to dramatize the final stages of the speaker’s breakdown. Caskets are often laid upon wooden planks before being lowered into the earth, but the casket in the speaker’s brain proves too heavy for such supports. In terms of the physical metaphor, the speaker’s mind has “broke”—its last vestiges of mental support have proven no match for the weight of the breakdown. The casket’s dropping “down and down” is like the speaker’s descent into madness where she hits a “World, at every plunge.” In terms of a conventional funeral, a dropping casket would eventually hit the world after falling the proverbial six feet, but this is no conventional funeral. Instead, the casket keeps “hitting bottom” only to find that there is another world beneath it. Just when the speaker thinks she has reached the limits of mental endurance, she learns that her casket can still drop another few feet. Thus, the problem of depicting the stages of derangement or mental collapse is sidestepped by Dickinson’s use of physical imagery and sensation.
The poem’s final line, however, presents an ambiguity (mentioned earlier) that demands examination. The speaker ends by stating that she “finished knowing—then—” a remark fraught with ambiguity. Either she “finished knowing” anything for sure and now lives as one who will never again assume anything about her own brain, or mind, to be certain or her breakdown has brought her to the point where she can no longer use conventional (or poetic) language to describe her experience. The first alternative is somewhat more comforting than the second since it implies that the speaker has had some sort of epiphany about her own mind and is now mentally strong enough to convey her experience in rational, ordered language. However, the second alternative is more in keeping with the overall problem of portraying consciousness: physical metaphors and sensations might be used to describe the onset of one’s collapse, but even Dickinson herself seems to be defeated by the challenge of depicting a mind that has already dropped “down, and down.” (Had she used a period instead of a dash after the last word, the problem would be solved.) As the poem stands, a reader must be satisfied with Dickinson’s evocation of “powerful feelings” rather than powerful thoughts to (in Wordsworth’s terms) “gradually produce” in the reader some understanding of what a funeral in the brain would be like. The impossibility of Dickinson’s truly replicating the breakdown in Wordsworth’s terms, however, should be regarded as somewhat of a blessing since no reader would want to read a poem capable of truly inciting a breakdown similar to the one experienced by its speaker.
Source: Daniel Moran, Critical Essay on “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.