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, 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
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....
(The entire section is 2,216 words.)