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.
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