The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 513

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.

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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, here by using the participle “berating.”

Stanza 3 moves toward burial with the lifting of the coffin “across [the] soul,” a way of suggesting not merely the disembodiment of the soul, or psyche, the coffin passing through its immaterial substance, but also an obliteration of human and immortal significance. This fact lies behind the stanza’s mournful clarion, “Then space began to toll,” depicting both the resonance of the church bells and the thunderous fact of the grave as the ultimate separator from the senses.

Unusual here is Dickinson’s use of a run-on stanza, leading into the penultimate fourth stanza, in which the persona is metonymized as an “Ear” forced to take in this overwhelming proclamation of the bells—“As [though] all the Heavens were a bell.” Death empties one of personhood, and one is joined to an eternal silence, countermanding that of the world of sense above. Thus, the persona suggests the analogy of shipwreck in “Wrecked solitary” to depict the disintegration and isolation of the dead.

In the final stanza, the persona recalls her interment in the ground, and here the true crisis of the poem is waged with the breaking of “a plank in reason.” Death represents a fall from rationality into nothingness—hence, into nonbeing. Cryptically, the persona speaks of the consequence of this fall as one of “hit[ting] a world at every plunge,” perhaps suggesting the hellish worlds of mythological and biblical import and their traditional association with the earth’s interior. Death is thus the legacy of man’s first fall and its own hell, in which humankind has “finished knowing.”

Forms and Devices

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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 Dickinson’s more familiar poem “Because I could not stop for Death.”

As always in a Dickinson poem, the imagery of the poem is arresting, both for its sources in the commonality of everyday life and for its assigned function in the poem as the weave of a conceit, or extended analogy. Here the real event is inner, not outer. The poem deals not with what death means to mourners, but with what death means for its victim: the loss of that which makes life possible, the senses. That loss is referred to in the poem as a “funeral in [the] brain” or a “mindgoing numb,” or “a plank in reason” that breaks.

This last image is the most striking of all. In the context, the plank suggests a means of passage over a chasm. It breaks, hurling the persona into the depths below. Dickinson may be suggesting the insufficiency of rationality to prepare one for the “fall” into death. Quite certainly, death marks the ending of all rationality and, hence, of all knowing. Strikingly, it is with the breaking of the plank of reason that the reader returns full circle to the poem’s startling opening, “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain.”

Historical Context

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Emerson and New England Transcendentalism
Although biographers have debated the different ways in which Dickinson's reading habits affected her work, almost all concur that the single most important author that influenced her poetry was the American philosopher, poet, and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882). To understand the intellectual climate of Dickinson's time, one cannot avoid an examination of this important American thinker.

Emerson was one of the founders of transcendentalism, a loose but dynamic philosophy which, in many ways, was a reaction to what its followers saw as the stifling Puritanism of America's past and, specifically, the rigid attention to reason urged by eighteenth-century enlightenment writers. Above all, transcendentalists believed in the divinity of human beings and the supremacy of the individual. Unlike enlightenment thinkers, who held that the world could only be perceived and understood through observation and rationality, transcendentalists were more like the European romantics in their focus on intuition as a means of discovering the truths of human existence. Transcendentalists also believed in the oversoul: a force present in all the universe that embodies truth, wisdom, and, above all, virtue and goodness. (Emerson's poem "Brahma" is an examination of the workings of the oversoul.)

One aim of human life was to harmonize one's individual soul with the oversoul; such a harmony would result in the fulfillment of that person's potential. Such an idea was shocking to hard-and-fast New England Calvinists, who held that God acted as a judge of man's sinful actions and doled out harsh but fitting punishments. The beauty and force of nature as an absolute good was another tran-scendentalist tenet, as was the value and virtue of complete self-reliance. Many of these ideas were articulated at length by Emerson in his Essays: First Series (1841), Essays: Second Series (1844), Poems (1846), and Representative Men (1850). Dickinson received a copy of Emerson's Poems in 1850, and the ideas behind such lines as "Beauty through my senses stole; /I yielded myself to the perfect whole" (from "Each and All") and "Beauty is its own excuse for being" (from "The Rhodora") surface throughout Dickinson's work and the work of many other New England authors who lived during Emerson's career.

Much of Emerson's work urges his readers to look to the best artists and poets for a greater understanding of both the world and themselves. For example, in his essay "Circles," he states, "All the argument and all the wisdom is not in the encyclopedia, or the treatise on metaphysics, or the Body of Divinity, but in the sonnet or the play." The great value placed here on verse as a means by which humans could better understand their worlds—a means even more powerful than the "Body of Divinity"—was a shocking one that would have certainly delighted Dickinson, whose poems often express religious frustrations and doubts.

There are even remarks in Emerson's work that echo Dickinson's decision to pursue a solitary life of the mind. In the essay "The Celebration of the Intellect," for example, Emerson commands, "Keep the intellect sacred. Go sit with the hermit in you, who knows more than you do," and in his essay "The Poet," Emerson tells potential artists, "Thou shalt leave the world, and know the muse only. The tragic poetry, The Long Shadow, Clark Griffith praises the poem for its embodiment of "emotional and psychological states in a hard, specific language" and concludes that the poem foreshadows "the principles and techniques of modern symbolist poetry." In his book The Art of Emily Dickinson's Early Poetry, David Porter states, "On the experience of psychic breakdown, perhaps no poetic expression surpasses the aptness of metaphor or the psychological authenticity of the progression of mental collapse" as Dickinson's poem. John Cody, a psychiatrist whose book After Great Pain: The Inner Life of Emily Dickinson offers a psychoanalytic reading of the poem, calls it "powerful" and praises Dickinson for her ability to make the reader "feel each tormenting increment of a gathering depression until vitality reaches a nadir, and reason gives way to a numb and psychotic state of reality severance." Finally, the aforementioned Cynthia Griffin Wolff, in her extensive critical biography Emily Dickinson, praises the way that the poem "taunts with its invitations and frustrations, and ultimately forces us to ask what we know, how we know—whether 'life' and 'death' are susceptible to understanding." These critics and many others thus praise the poem for its sharp insights into what happens to a mind facing its own destruction.

Media Adaptations

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A two-cassette set entitled Emily Dickinson: Poems and Letters features a recording of “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” along with seventy-four other poems. It was released in 1989 by Recorded Books, Inc.

Bibliography

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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

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Sources
Bloom, Harold, Introduction, in Emily Dickinson, Modern Critical Views series, Chelsea House Publishers, 1985, pp. 1–7.

Cody, John, After Great Pain: The Inner Life of Emily Dickinson, Harvard University Press, 1971, p. 403.

Dickinson, Emily, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson, Little, Brown and Company, 1960.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo, Representative Selections, American Book Company, 1934, p. 229.

Ferlazzo, Paul J., Emily Dickinson, Twayne, 1976, pp. 90–1.

Frome, Keith Weller, Hitch Your Wagon to a Star, and Other Quotations by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Columbia University Press, 1996, pp. 83, 85.

Griffith, Clark, The Long Shadow: Emily Dickinson’s Tragic Poetry, Princeton University Press, 1964, pp. 245–50. Kirby, Joan, Emily Dickinson, St. Martin’s Press, 1991, pp. 3–5.

Loving, Jerome, Emily Dickinson: The Poet on the Second Story, Cambridge University Press, 1986, p. 101.

Monteiro, George, “Traditional Ideas in Dickinson’s ‘I Felt a Funeral in My Brain,’” in Modern Language Notes, Vol. 75, 1960, p. 661.

Perkins, George, et al., Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia of American Literature, HarperCollins Publishers, 1991, pp. 261–63.

Pickard, John B., Emily Dickinson: An Introduction and Interpretation, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1967, pp. 104–05.

Porter, David, “The Early Achievement,” in Emily Dickinson, Modern Critical Views series, Chelsea House Publishers, 1985, pp. 76–77.

Weisbuch, Robert, Emily Dickinson’s Poetry, University of Chicago Press, 1975, pp. 105, 103.

Wolff, Cynthia Griffin, Emily Dickinson, Alfred A. Knopf, 1987, pp. 227–33.

For Further Study
Anderson, Charles R., Emily Dickinson’s Poetry: Stairway of Surprise, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1960. Anderson’s book examines Dickinson’s poetry by examining what he sees as its four major concerns: art, nature, the self, and death. The book also features a short biographical sketch of Dickinson.

Matthiessen, F. O., American Renaissance: Art and Expression in the Age of Emerson and Whitman, Oxford University Press, 1968. While Matthissen’s renowned survey of American literature only mentions Dickinson in passing, it is an invaluable study of the ways in which Emerson affected the nineteenth-century literary scene.

Robinson, John, Emily Dickinson, Faber and Faber, 1986. This short book is both a study of Dickinson’s work and an examination of the intellectual climate of the New England in which she lived and wrote.

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