The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Like all Emily Dickinson’s poems, this one bears no title. The usual way of referring to a Dickinson poem is therefore through either its first line or its assigned number in Thomas Johnson’s definitive edition. “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” is vintage Dickinson in both form and theme, given to homely illustration from life—here a funeral—simplicity of construction, irregular rhyme, and a preoccupation with death in a context of somber meditation. Outwardly a simple poem, it is one of several that Dickinson wrote not only to note the pervasiveness of death as ending, but also to explore the very nature of death itself.

The initial stanza commences with what is fundamentally a conceit through which the persona, or speaker in the poem, attempts to articulate what death is like through an unusual analogy—that of a “Funeral in [the] Brain.” Intriguingly, and not an uncommon stance in Dickinson, the viewpoint is that of one who has already died. In recall, the funeral is sufficiently vivid nearly to transport the persona back to the realm of sense—or, as the speaker says, “it seemed/ That Sense was breaking through.”

Stanza 2 continues the poem’s emphasis on the ritual of death with a movement from sense to numbing, as if underscoring death’s inexorable onslaught on life. The analogy is to the funeral service. As in the opening stanza, the third line reinforces death’s macabre finality in its repetitive insistence,...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Noteworthy in the poem is the employment of near rhyme in lines 2 and 4 of the initial stanza to suggest disintegration. In the ceremonial observances of the next three stanzas, regularity asserts itself in the rhyming of the second and fourth lines, as if the poet were suggesting that it is in human rite that humans attempt to assign meaning to death. The final stanza, however, is ominous in its breaking of the “plank of reason,” as if implying the folly of such attempts to bridge, or transcend, death’s chasm through the imposition of a rationale upon the cosmic scheme of things. Accordingly, there is not even near rhyme, for death is the ultimate cessation of any kind of knowing, the consummate disintegration of sense.

Repetition is pervasive in the first three stanzas to underscore both the solemnity of the occasion and the ominous truth that death represents. There are “mourners to and fro” who keep “treading, treading”; there is a service that is like a drum that is “Kept beating, beating,” while in stanza 3, the persona hears “those same boots of lead again.” Behind this repetition lies the implication of death as an inexorable process undoing everyone. Thus, while the time aspect of the poem is ostensibly one of past tense, the persona reminiscing, one finds the irony of a repetition affirming time’s slow but inevitable movement toward human dissolution in which time itself will die. It is a theme similar to that of...

(The entire section is 450 words.)

Historical Context

(Poetry for Students)

Emerson and New England Transcendentalism
Although biographers have debated the different ways in which Dickinson's reading...

(The entire section is 741 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Poetry for Students)

Research modern psychological explanations of what happens to the human mind when it is faced with clinical depression or some other mental...

(The entire section is 179 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Poetry for Students)

A two-cassette set entitled Emily Dickinson: Poems and Letters features a recording of “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” along with...

(The entire section is 33 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Poetry for Students)

Dickinson’s “After great pain, a formal feeling comes—” (1861) describes the after-effects of profound physical, mental, emotional,...

(The entire section is 208 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Boruch, Marianne. “Dickinson Descending.” The Georgia Review 40 (1986): 863-877.

Brantley, Richard E. Experience and Faith: The Late-Romantic Imagination of Emily Dickinson. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Carruth, Hayden. “Emily Dickinson’s Unexpectedness.” Ironwood 14 (1986): 51-57.

Eberwein, Jane Donahue. An Emily Dickinson Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998.

Ferlazzo, Paul, ed. Critical Essays on Emily Dickinson. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984.

Grabher, Gudrun, Roland Hagenbüchle, and Cristanne Miller, ed. The Emily Dickinson Handbook. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998.

Juhasz, Suzanne, ed. Feminist Critics Read Emily Dickinson. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983.

Kirk, Connie Ann. Emily Dickinson: A Biography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004.

Lundin, Roger. Emily Dickinson and the Art of Belief. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 2004.

MacNeil, Helen. Emily Dickinson. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986.

Pollack, Vivian R. A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Vendler, Helen Hennessey. Poets Thinking: Pope, Whitman, Dickinson, Yeats. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004.

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Poetry for Students)

Bloom, Harold, Introduction, in Emily Dickinson, Modern Critical Views series, Chelsea House Publishers, 1985,...

(The entire section is 332 words.)