Dickinson often objectifies death through a narrator who recalls her own death. This occurs, for example, in poems 449, 465, and 712. Along with God, nature, and love, death is a favorite theme. At times Dickinson’s position toward death seems contradictory. On one hand, she seems nearly to celebrate it as an anodyne to life, as in “Because I could not stop for Death,” where death appears in the guise of a suitor and the grave is a “House” in the ground. On the other hand, death is that stain upon the cosmos, an act of a “burglar” deity. In one of her letters, she exclaimed, “I can’t stay any longer in a world of death.”
The poem is notable for its lack of a consolatory element, a departure from the custom of the time. Indeed, it offers no message of any kind, either about how to live or how to prepare for Eternity. The emphasis is upon death, its stark reality as a divorcer from the senses and as life’s ultimate ritual. A person has no source of promptings for its content. Clearly the poem is not Christian in its depiction of death as ultimate extinction rather than as passage into glory.
It is possible that the poem deals with a psychical death—that is, with the desperate attempt of the mind to ward off pain through repression, or the forgoing of consciousness. In this vein, the analogy of burial is an appropriate one. Elsewhere (poem 777), Dickinson writes of “The Horror not to be surveyed—/ But skirted in the Dark—/ With Consciousness suspended—/ And Being under Lock.” In poem 341, Dickinson writes that “After great pain, a formal feeling comes—/ The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs.” In the same poem, she writes, “This is the hour of Lead,” which may be compared with the “boots of lead” in the present poem.
It is also conceivable that the poem depicts the mind’s downward journey into madness or psychological dislocation. In this connection, poem 435 speaks of “Madness” as the “divinest Sense” and of “Much Sense—the starkest Madness.” Indeed, some critics have argued for a psychotic disturbance in Emily Dickinson or for some kind of severe loss in her life that created a devastating emotional aftermath.
Madness and Sanity “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” is a poem that, in part, presents the impending mental collapse of its speaker, a collapse that Dickinson likens to the rituals of a funeral to ultimately explore the figurative “death” of the speaker’s sanity. The word felt in the poem’s opening line suggests that the first throbbings of the collapse could be physically perceived; this merging of physical sensation and mental perception is sustained throughout the poem. By comparing the speaker’s mental breakdown to a funeral, Dickinson suggests the horror and finality of such an event.
The funeral’s participants and rites can be read as metaphors for the speaker’s impending collapse; as the figurative funeral proceeds through its recognizable stages, the speaker’s sanity becomes more endangered until it finally “dies.” The mourners that the speaker feels repeatedly “treading— treading” in her brain are like the first recognizable signs (to her) that all is not well with her mind, despite the fact that her sense of what is happening to her is “breaking through” the sounds of the mourners’ footsteps. The funeral service here is not a peaceful eulogy or tearful farewell but an unpleasant sound “like a drum” that plagues her mind with its “beating—beating” until she reaches the point where she cannot stand any more of it, and her mind grows numb. At...
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this point, she has no hope of fending off her approaching breakdown. Her mind is described here in physical terms (“numb”) to suggest its nearly incapacitated state. The carrying of the casket to the gravesite—the next logical step in the funeral rite—is used to convey the increased mental and even spiritual anguish of the speaker, for the pallbearers “creak across” her soul with “boots of lead” as they carry their mournful burden.
The tolling of the church bells is presented as a nearly indescribable source of pain: “all the heavens” are like one great “bell,” and her entire being is like a single “ear.” At this point, the speaker’s trauma has become so intense that she is “wrecked, solitary, here” in a place where her ability to describe her own mind has become almost totally diminished. The lowering of the casket into the ground is compared to the final onslaught of insanity; the poem ends with the speaker being “finished knowing” anything for certain. All of her previously held assumptions about her own mind and soul have been metaphorically buried, like the remains of her sanity.
Doubt and Uncertainty While Dickinson’s poem can be read as a description of its speaker’s mental collapse, this is not the only valid interpretation. Indeed, “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” can also be read as a depiction of an individual’s complete loss of religious faith. In this light, the funeral described is not one for the speaker’s sanity but for those religious or spiritual assumptions previously embraced by her. While the cause of such a loss is never mentioned, the effects of it are described as devastating. Funeral rites are very often religious ones, and the “service” here can be read as an ironic metaphor: the speaker’s loss of faith can only be described using religious terms. Words like “service,” “soul” and “heavens” all suggest the paradox of a person attempting to describe the loss of her beliefs using language that once took its meaning from those beliefs.
The pallbearers’ “creaking across” the speaker’s soul with “boots of lead” suggests a system of belief being metaphorically trod upon, and the entire universe tolling like a single bell suggests that the speaker finds her recent loss of faith both inescapable and undeniable. The poem’s end thus presents a person who is “finished knowing” what she once took as an article of faith before the “plank in reason broke,” that is, before her last hold on her previously held beliefs was destroyed, and she was plunged into the depths of doubt and skepticism. As Dickinson herself wrote elsewhere:
To lose one’s faith—surpass The loss of an Estate— Because Estates can be Replenished—faith cannot—