I Felt a Funeral in My Brain
Emily Dickinson’s – My Brain and its Interpretation of Life and Death
Dickinson’s Death in Life
In Emily Dickinson’s “I Felt A Funeral In My Brain,” Dickinson describes a funeral taking place within her brain. In the past 124 years since its publication, this poem has received much debate about the poem’s meaning. Some believe that Dickinson is writing from beyond the grave while others think the speaker is still alive. Similarly, some believe that the funeral is metaphorical while others argue that it is literal. While different people may interpret different meanings of the poem, I believe that Dickinson wrote this poem from the perspective of a living person. This person is experiencing an intense migraine which is used to illustrate
First we must understand what each line means and its context in Dickinson’s perspective. The first stanza of the poem –
I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading – treading – till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through exposes the setting. In this set up, we see that the funeral is both metaphorical and literal. From an outside perspective, the funeral is metaphorical because it is not actually happening. But Dickinson says “I felt a Funeral in my Brain,” illustrating that to her the funeral is literal. She physically feels the funeral, so to her it is not a metaphor. She continues to describe “Mourners” walking “to and fro” across her brain, their tiny footsteps drilling pain into her head. The mourners “Kept treading – treading – till it seemed / That Sense was breaking through -” which depicts the monotony of the migraine pulsing in her head. Note the repetition of the word “treading,” which makes the poem sound to the reader how the migraine feels to her.
The next stanza –
And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum –
Kept beating – beating – till I thought
My mind was going numb intensifies the sensation of the ache in her head. Even after the tiny mourners have seated, the service continues to beat across her head. Again, she repeats a word (“beating” this time) to highlight the metronomic pulsing through her brain. The stanza is concluded with “My mind was going numb,” which is the indicator that she can’t take it anymore.
In the following stanza –
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 chronology of the funeral continues, heightening the action. At this point, the box is lifted and ready to be buried. The box “creaks across [her] soul,” which illustrates how the pain has taken control of her entire body, and is no longer contained to her head. She calls back to the “boots of lead” which the tiny mourners use to stomp across her brain. If “space began to toll,” then that means that the space around her is taking some sort of toll on her, whether it is physical or mental. This shows that it is no longer just the feelings in her head that are affecting her, but everything around her as well.
The first line of the next stanza –
As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race,
Wrecked, solitary, here defines the heavens as a bell. This renders the image of the omnipresent and ever reaching heavens letting out a ring all about her. The next line defines her being as “but an ear” – she has no choice but to listen to the ringing. The sentence “And I, and Silence, some strange race” has an odd grammatical pattern, but sense can be made of it. The parallel structure of “And I, and Silence” is used to equate her and silence; she is silence. In the same way, She and silence are also a “strange race.” She uses race to mean a competition, as if she is wrestling silence so that she could attain silence and make her entirety become silence. But her feat is “wrecked” just as she is. The change in meter of this line signals a change in the poem.
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 changes the poem. Dickinson says that a “plank in reason breaks,” demonstrating a snapping of her sanity as the migraine wins. The next line, “And I dropped down, and down,” is an indicator that there has been a change. She is the one dropping down, meaning she now imagines herself in the casket falling through the earth. Although she is actually still alive, she imagines that she has died, as a result of the migraine being so extreme. The sentence “And hit a world, at every plunge” entertains the idea that perhaps she is passing through into another world, that is, an afterlife. Although it now convincingly sounds as though she has died, the poem ends in “And finished knowing – then -” This sentence structure is strange because the poem ends in a hyphen. This is the sign that she has not actually died. “Then -” signals that something else should follow. She does not have to tell us what follows, she only needs to indicate that this is not actually the end for us to know that she is still alive.
Dickinson uses “I Felt A Funeral” to exhibit somebody that is experiencing an illness or headache so intense that they feel as though they have died. This is apparent through the text of the poem. Many of the descriptors in the text are consistent with symptoms of migraines and other illnesses. The purpose of describing an illness with imagery of a funeral is to demonstrate that there is death in life.
Dickinson often discussed death in her poems. Throughout her work, death seems to be a recurring theme. For example, in “My Life Had Stood A Loaded Gun,” she describes herself as a gun, an instrument of death, and then discusses immortality versus the power to die. In Johnson #327 she questions whether she is afraid of death, life, or resurrection. This reoccurring theme of death is often ominous and cryptic, but always is used parallel to life. Throughout her life, Dickinson was very close to death or deathly feelings fairly often. In her teenage years, she was frequently ill, and had a prolonged year-long illness in one case. In her later years of writing, she became a recluse and became very depressed. It is quite possible that through her life she felt death over and over even though she continued to live, and developed a philosophy of death in life.
This idea of death in life is contrasted by Herman Melville in Moby-Dick. In the novel, there are multiple instances of symbolism of rebirth, or life in death. The protagonist Ishmael is almost killed, but escapes a shipwreck by drifting away on another character’s coffin. The symbol of the coffin, a vessel of death, now serving as a vessel for life is a metaphor for how there is life even in death. In addition, after almost every character is killed, Melville mentions. the sky and the ocean. He describes the sky as feminine and the ocean as masculine, which is again a symbol of rebirth, as both a male and a female are needed for new human life. Melville’s view of death in Moby-Dick are almost a direct opposite of Dickinson’s philosophy of death in “I Felt A Funeral,” as Melville believes in life in death while Dickinson upholds death in life.
Famous poet Walt Whitman, who wrote at the same time as Dickinson, also had very opposing views to Dickinson in regard to death. Whitman would likely agree more with Melville, as he sees death as an opportunity for rebirth. In his poem “This Compost” from Leaves of Grass, Whitman begins by discussing death. He talks about “corpses” and “carcasses,” the aftermaths of death. Next, he builds the scene about a compost pile, complete with decaying matter of once-live fruit, animals, and leaves, but as the matter decays it serves as a fertilizer for new life: berries, apple buds, hatched young animals, and more. The entire view of this poem could be summed up by the sentence near the poem’s end, “It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions.” Whitman sees death as a new beginning rather than an ending. Just like Melville, Whitman believes in “life in death.”
Dickinson’s poem “I Felt A Funeral In My Brain,” is an example of how Dickinson views life and death. In Dickinson’s philosophy, life is rife with death, even before death actually occurs. By tracing text of “I Felt A Funeral,” one can determine that it is about an extreme case of pain – a migraine or an illness – which is but one example of death in life. This was a very radical view, which is apparent by contrasting her work to other writers and poets of the time. Both Herman Melville and Walt Whitman’s work display that they believe in “life in death” rather than Dickinson’s notion of “death in life.” Dickinson’s philosophy may be explained by her history as she was often ill and developed depression later in her life. Nevertheless, “I Felt A Funeral” offers a unique perspective on life, and is an alluring read.
Emily Dickinson’s: Because I Could Not Stop for Death and I Felt a Funeral in My Brain and how Death is Spoke About
Emily Dickinson portrays death In vastly different ways in “I could not stop for death” and “I felt a funeral in my brain”. “Because I could not stop for death” is a happier, much lighter hearted portrayal, with the speaker entering deaths carriage and travelling until she is ready to accept her own demise. “I felt a funeral in my brain” is a much more morbid take on death, and documents the speakers thoughts well in their own casket. “I felt a funeral in my brain” and “Because I could not stop for death” show how people deal with the moment of their death, and their own mortality.
“Because I could not stop for death” depicts Death as a carriage, or hearse driver. Death is introduced right away as the leading character and focus of the poem, performing a human action; stopping for someone on his way. Death is obviously not a real person, but in Dickinson’s work he is personified as being courteous and kind to the speaker. The speaker goes on a journey with death, passing through places four times before pausing. The “We paused” ties the whole poem together through anaphora, making the reader feel the bond between the speaker and death. When they finally “Pause”, It is before “A house that seemed / A swelling in the ground” which represents a grave. The speaker has finally accepted her death and is ready to move on.
“I felt a funeral in my brain” has a much more grim outlook on death. The whole poem reads almost like a horrible interpretation of a church Hymm because of it’s rhyme scheme and strict adherence to quatrains. Depending on your level of sympathy with her, you could see the speaker as morbid and obsessed with death, or as just someone going through a traumatic experience against her will. Maybe she just has a terrible headache.When she says “those same Boots of lead, again,” we get the sense that she has been through something like this before. She can’t really decide whether she wants to be around people or not. She’s not pleased with all the mourners walking on her at the beginning of the poem, but in the fourth stanza she associates solitude with being “wrecked.” She hears church bells; “As all the Heavens were a Bell,And Being, but an Ear,” , but can’t respond to them in any way. She seems to have a knowledge of religion, but hates the idea of heavens. At the end the floor caves in “And then a Plank in Reason, broke, And I dropped down, and down” and she finally loses her thoughts, and is able to be at peace.
Although both pieces of literature confront and explore death in different ways, they are both resolved with the speaker dying. Both “I felt a funeral in my brain” and “Because I could not stop for death” show how differently people react to dying.
Common Ideas in I Felt a Funeral, in My Brain and and We Stay
Poetry Cross Reference in And We Stay by Jenny Hubbard
“I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” by Emily Dickinson directly correlates with the novel And We Stay by Jenny Hubbard. First and foremost, throughout the novel, the main character, Emily Beam, is fascinated with, “Emily Dickinson, with her 1,775 poems…” (Hubbard 35). Emily is constantly comparing herself to Emily Dickinson and reading her works to get her mind off of her boyfriend’s suicide. Furthermore, towards the end of the novel, Emily’s friend, Amber, stole one of Dickinson’s old dresses from when she was a child and it was up to Emily Beam to restore it to the Dickinson household.
Aside from the fact that Emily Beam was infatuated with Dickinson and her works, “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” directly correlates with the theme of the novel. Emily is trapped in a mental prison due to her boyfriend’s suicide in the school library. Everything she does constantly reminds her of Paul and their memories together. Throughout the story, Emily keeps divulging more and more of the terrible story, but ultimately comes to enlightenment and acceptance. In Dickinson’s poem, the narrator comes to accept their mental pain at the end when, “…I dropped down, and down-/…And Finished knowing – then -” (Dickinson 18-20). And We Stay was entirely based on the struggle to find acceptance of emotional pain, as was the poem; ergo both works are very similar in nature to each other.
In the novel, Paul Wagoner, Emily Beam’s boyfriend, shot himself in the stomach in the school library after Emily decided she was going to abort their baby. This same theme of death and finding the good in the bad can be applied to Dickinson’s poem. At the beginning of the poem, Dickinson, “…felt a Funeral, in my brain” (1). While in the novel, Paul’s death was not symbolic of pain but was the actual physical embodiment of it, the same aura of death irradiates from both works. The narrators are both searching for inner strength to accept the things that they know they cannot change. The search for strength is also a search for peace. The theme of finding peace in struggle can be applied to both of the works. In the novel, Emily Beam is trying to make amends with the fact that her boyfriend is gone and it is due to her ignorance of his feelings. In the poem, it is not clear what exactly the death is meant to represent, however the narrator is still struggling to find acceptance of it. Both the novel and the poem share common roots in the sense that both are battling against themselves to ultimately find peace in struggle. Life constantly tests your abilities to overcome various obstacles and challenges, and in the case of both of these works, life had gotten the best of them.
There is an internal struggle amongst Emily Beam and the narrator of the poem to find acceptance in the things they cannot change. Another theme of both of the works is that you need to overcome yourself to overcome your external problems. Not all things can easily be solved; due to this, you must first become a master of yourself to master your issues. Emily had to overcome her fear of people knowing about her emotions expressed through her poems to find acceptance of the suicide of her boyfriend. In the poem, the narrator had to learn to accept the ‘Funeral in their Brain’ in order to overcome their emotional pain.