In Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, both Tom and his pal Huck Finn get the chance to witness their own funerals and experience the heartfelt loss of those they leave behind. After creating the evidence of their feigned death, they are lucky enough to experience what most people have fantasized about at one time or another, they observe the world’s response to their leaving it. They are able to see and hear the sobbing mourners crying over how much they will miss them; how unfair it was for their short lives to be ended so soon, and so on. Nevertheless, the boys are not dead, and their experience is fully external, the fantasy complete without the actual loss of life.
In “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” Emily Dickinson also employs the perspective of a deceased narrator although in this case the experience is fully internal, and there is no rejoining the living to exploit what is learned at the ceremony. In fact, Emily Dickinson’s narrator’s disembodied voice is so internalized it cannot make sense of the experience in any way other than to feel it inside her brain in the form of footsteps and drum beats. It is a completely claustrophobic affair, where the narrator is at the center of the experience, yet completely detached from it. Dickinson’s from-the-grave narrator is most limited in her experience because she has no context from which to build the meaning. She has only the muffled sounds of footsteps and the creaking of the box, her coffin, from which to draw any inferences about her predicament. Once the ability to build meaning becomes clearly futile, the voice collapses in on itself, dropping down and away from meaning until she “finishe[s] knowing.”
The two most popular interpretations of the poem are: it is a poem about the transition from life to death; and it is a poem about the loss of reason, a slipping into a senseless void of insanity. Arguably, Emily Dickinson might have conceded that these are in fact not opposing views at all. Whether it is death or insanity, Dickinson sees it the same: the incapacitation of a transmitter’s receiver leaves meaning ungrounded, floating senselessly in the void.
It is a curious thing to go to the trouble of granting a narrator the power to speak from the grave and then not allow her to make sense of anything. For readers trying to assert some meaning, perhaps this is the narrator’s ultimate function: to dramatize that being is defined as one’s ability to make sense of the world around him or her. In a later poem, “This is my letter to the World,” Dickinson offers thanks to nature for having provided her with the tools necessary to assert some sense to the universe: “The simple News that Nature told— / With tender Majesty.” In, “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,” her narrator is cut off from the world and “the simple News” of it, leaving her very little from which to derive an interpretation of her situation. The voice from the coffin is sealed off from the metaphors and concrete expressions of truth exhibited through nature and the world surrounding Dickinson’s typically very speculative narrators.
Stanza one opens with the paradoxical notion of a concrete experience that takes place entirely at the nexus of abstract being, “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain.” The choice of the word brain over the word mind is significant, for the mind is not a physical organ but a process that occurs within it. Therefore, the process of the brain,...
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the ability to make sense of the surrounding world and even a person’s existence within it, seems to be breaking down to its most base elements, its container.
Lines two and three of this first stanza move into a description of the funeral service, ignoring the limitations that it has established for itself in the first line by being only a brain. With the narrative perspective clearly entombed within itself, it has no alternative but to describe what it feels and how things seem. This perspective stands in sharp contrast to another of Dickinson’s dead narrator perspectives, the voice in “I heard a Fly Buzz when I died.” In the latter example, she posits the narrator on a deathbed absorbing the scenario around her, including the mourners’ tears, the light from the window, and the “stumbling buzz” of the either sympathetic or opportunistic fly. In the above lines, readers do not see the world around the perspective but rather, like she, they only feel distant, muffled vibration.
And Mourners to and fro Kept treading—treading—till it seemed That Sense was breaking through—
Things only seem to be, and the distinct characteristics of the mourners are withheld. The “sense” of which the narrator speaks is derived not from sight, sound, smell, touch, or taste but rather some experience of vibration, which the narrator reports in the next stanza:
And when they [the mourners] all were seated, A Service, like a Drum— Kept Beating—beating—till I thought My mind was going numb—
Since there is no intermediary between what is going on outside the brain and the brain’s interpretation of the experience, the reader may even wonder if there is any experience at all other than the waning pulse of a dying or slowly ceasing nerve center. What seems to be the narrator’s final experience is simply this dying pulse of electric energy making one last reflexive connection to the mind’s strongest tool of interpretation—memory, the memory of the funerals of others.
In stanza three, the narrator, in effect, repeats her earlier report regarding mourners footsteps but this time seems to be releasing the perspective of an entombed, internal self into perhaps an even more frightful, detached, abstract void.
And then I heard them lift a Box And creak across my Soul With those same Boots of Lead, again Then Space—began to toll.
The narrator has shifted the perspective from its seat in the physical brain to an abstract and elusive vantage point, the soul. The blurring of the concrete and abstract continues and builds momentum. Earlier, the narrator feels the funeral through the to and fro treading of the mourners; a physical brain experiencing the sensation of physical footsteps. Now, the box (presumably a coffin or the sense of enclosure), a concrete object, creaks across her soul, an abstract concept. The image is the poem’s equivalent of the Zen koan: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” The paradox highlights the deterioration of sense and is echoed in the stanza’s final line, “Then Space—began to toll.” How can space, which is the absence of matter, begin to toll without anything within it to react? The dash in this stanza’s last line seems to mark the place for some missing concrete element needed to catalyze meaning.
By stanza four, what was initially a report of purely physical sensation and a remaining connection to the concrete world seems to slip away toward utter detachment. The last thing to go is the sensation of the pulsing organ itself, or better, the echo of what was once a pulsing organ dynamically absorbing existence and making sense of it.
As all the Heavens were a Bell, And Being, but an Ear, And I, and Silence, some strange Race Wrecked, solitary, here—
Significantly, the line reads “Heavens” as opposed to Heaven, suggesting that a vast, wide open emptiness of space is intended rather than a resting place or afterlife for the departed. The continuing loss of the stuff of meaning is marked by the race with “Silence” experienced by the narrative “I,” who is now reduced to being but an ear. The detachment from existence is nearly complete as “Wrecked, solitary, here—” suggests those in the race become one—“solitary”—and even the faint hint or pulse of a memory of an earthly experience ends with a convergence of being and silence “here.”
Finally, the narrative voice, completely cut off from concrete existence and the stuff of meaning, collapses in on itself with a swift succession of the word and repeated at the beginning of each line in the final stanza.
And then a Plank in Reason, broke, And I dropped down, and down— And hit a World, at every plunge, And Finished knowing—then—
The “thumping of “And” that is concentrated in [this stanza],” says Cynthia Griffin Wolff, in her critical study Emily Dickinson, emphasizes that events in these lines occur “without pause, without yielding insight, without any logical relationship to one another, without any ordering of importance.” The “and” beats create the feeling of life being “swept remorselessly along in the swift current of time, swept over the edge, perhaps to come to rest in some unfathomed end, perhaps merely to fall forever . . . [in an] undefined descent beyond understanding.”
Amidst this freefall into nothingness, the narrator offers one more paradox to consider, the knowledge of (or at least the sensation of the knowledge of) “Finish[ing] knowing.” Dashes surround this final moment and the final word then as if to mark the black-hole limbo wherein the echo of the voice continues to reside in silence. Ironically, the poem underscores its author’s understanding of her own poetic process by showing the demise of it.
Source: Paul Pineiro, Critical Essay on “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,” in Poetry for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.