I felt a Funeral, in my Brain

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain

by Emily Dickinson

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading – treading – till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through –

And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum –
Kept beating – beating – till I thought
My mind was going numb –

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,

As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race,
Wrecked, solitary, here –

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing – then –

______________________

In this poem, Dickinson describes the feeling of being conscious after death. She does that by her Speaker evoking the imagery of attending one’s own funeral as a conscious corpse.

Dickinson’s poem is told from a first person perspective, is 20 lines long, and comprised of five 4 line stanzas. Her stanzas contain an ABCB rhyme scheme. She utilizes unorthodox grammar choices, including capitalization of nouns, and also a frequent use of hyphenation. The capitalization of nouns is debatably at random, or alternatively it may be an attempt by the author to personify the capitalized noun in some way. If the latter, then the decision seems to be focused on characterizing the capitalized noun as a thing separate of herself.

Stanza One:

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading – treading – till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through –

The first line directs the Reader toward which of their senses they should imagine while reading. Dickinson says that she “felt” a funeral. The use of this word removes the sense of a visual attendance and replaces it with the sensation of vibration. We can suspect that the deceased Speaker might be able to hear inasmuch as she seems aware of where she is an what is happening. In fact, the “treading” of the mourners is clueing the Speaker in to what she is experiencing.

The first stanza also sets-up the subject matter context of the poem. We do not get a sense from the lines that the Speaker is grieving. Something else is happening.

Stanza Two:

And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum –
Kept beating – beating – till I thought
My mind was going numb –

The second stanza begins as the nature of the sound (or vibration) changes. Instead of treading, the Speaker now hears a service which she describes as beating like a drum. The drum beat described as continuous until the Speaker’s mind was going “numb.”

At this point in the poem, it is not clear who exactly the Speaker is. The Reader has a growing sense though that the Speaker is the corpse.

Stanza Three:

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,

If we as the Reader have begun to suspect that the Speaker is the deceased, during the first two stanzas, the third stanza seems to confirm it. Lifting a box may be something someone attending a funeral might hear, however, having the box then creek across one’s Soul seems to be a feeling limited to the one inside the casket.

The Speaker here describes the time after the funeral when the casket is carried from the funeral. She describes the sound of footsteps – boots – that follow the lifting. In line 12, the Speaker’s use of “Then Space” may describe the feeling of movement.

Stanza Four:

As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race,
Wrecked, solitary, here –

In this stanza, it seems that the Speaker is beginning to understand her surroundings. In line 13, the Speaker uses the word “Heavens.” That implies that she is possibly aware of her own death. The Speaker in line 14 describes herself as an Ear – drawing attention again to the fact her sensory perception is limited to sound. She also describes herself as “some strange Race” indicating that she now knows she is no longer quite fully human.

In lines 15 and 16, the Speaker seems to begin lamenting her situation. She is “Silent,” “Wrecked,” and “solitary.” She describes herself as alone but ever listening.

Stanza Five:

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing – then –

In the last stanza, the Speaker describes the sensation of her casket descending into the ground.

Line 17 presents a double-meaning when describing the descent of the casket. She says “a Plank in Reason, broke,” meaning that she finally understands exactly what is happening. Line 19 is a mystery to me, with respect to its meaning. The Speaker says she “hit a World, at every plunge” and this seems to mean, I think, that realization and thoughts came to her as she descended. The phrase though is a bit vague.

Finally though, in line 20, she says she “Finished knowing.” The full realization of her own death is now upon her. The Reader does not know what come next. The Speaker only tells us “- then -” to conclude the work. We have a sense that something follows after this knowledge but it us unstated.

The final product of this poem is an unsettling picture of what death may be like. The Speaker stops short of leaving the Readers with a sense of total despair due to the last word of the poem. Perhaps something happens to change the condition of perpetual isolation in the dark underground. However, the uncertainty leaves the Reader uncomfortable with the outcome.

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