|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,
And then I heard them lift a box,
As all the heavens were a bell,
And then a plank in reason, broke,
|I have included the last stanza of this poem, which is omitted in the version of this poem which your textbook uses. Not only does it complete the meaning of the poem, it intensifies the emotional impact of the poem. This is only my opinion, and you are free to make your own judgment about the two versions.|
"I felt a funeral in my brain" traces the speaker's descent into madness. It is a terrifying poem for both the speaker and the reader. The speaker experiences the loss of self in the chaos of the unconscious, and the reader experiences the speaker's descending madness and the horror most of us feel about going crazy.
Dickinson uses the metaphor of a funeral to represent the speaker's sense that a part of her is dying, that is, her reason is being overwhelmed by the irrationality of the unconscious. A funeral is an appropriate image for this ordeal. The most obvious connotation with a funeral is death. Also a funeral is a formal event, whose rules and procedures suggest control and order. The control and order implicit in a funeral contrast ironically with the lack of control and the loss of rationality that threaten the speaker. In addition, a funeral marks the passage from one state to another (life to death), a parallel to the speaker's passing from one stage to another (sanity to insanity). However, the poet is not observing the funeral but is feeling it. She is both observer of the funeral and participant, indicating that the Self is divided. By the end of the poem, the Self will have shattered into pieces or chaos.
The mourners are a metaphor to express her pain. Their treading (note the repetition of the word, which gives emphasis and suggests the action) indicates a pressure that is pushing her down. The speaker has a momentary impression that reason ("sense") is escaping or being lost. The pressure of the treading is reasserted with the repetition, "beating, beating." This time her mind, the source of reasoning, goes "numb," a further deterioration in her condition.
You can trace the process of the speaker's loss of rationality in stanzas three and four. The last two lines of stanza four assess her condition; she sees herself as "wrecked, solitary." Her descent into irrationality separates her from other human beings, making her a member of "some strange race." Her alienation and inability to communicate are indicated by her being enveloped by silence.
In the last stanza, the one I have added here, Dicksinson uses the metaphor of standing on a plank or board over a precipice, to describe the speaker's descent into irrationality. In other words, her hold on rationality was insecure, just as standing on a plan would feel insecure. She falls past "worlds," which may stand for her past; in any case, she is losing her connections to reality. Her descent is described as "plunges," suggesting the speed and force of her fall into psychological chaos ("got through knowing"). The last word of the poem, "then--," does not finish or end her experience but leaves opens the door for the nightmare-horror of madness.
|Dickinson, Online overview|
"For each ecstatic instant," p. 2
"I taste a liquor never brewed," p. 2
"Safe in their alabaster chambers," p. 3
"I heard a fly buzz when I died," p. 21
"It was not death, for I stood up," p. 22
|"A bird came down the walk," p. 13|
"I like to see it lap the miles," p. 27
"Pain has an element of blank," p. 31
"A narrow fellow in the grass," p. 44
"I'm nobody! Who are you?" p. 9
|"After great pain a formal feeling comes" (handout)|
"The soul selects her own society" (handout)
"The heart asks pleasure first," p. 24
"I'll tell you how the sun rose," p. 11
"Presentiment is that long shadow on the lawn," p. 36
|"Success is counted sweetest" (handout)|
"I cannot live with you," p. 29
"He fumbles at your spirit," p. 11
"I felt a cleaving in my mind," p. 43
"My life closed twice before its close," p. 49
|"Wild nights! Wild nights!" p.5|
"She sweeps with many-colored brooms," p. 3
"Hope is the thing with feathers," p. 5
"I felt a funeral in my brain," p. 8
"I had been hungry all the years," p. 26
|"I started Early--took my Dog--" (handout) |
"My life had stood a loaded gun" (handout)
"Because I could not stop for Death," p. 35
"If you were coming in the fall," p. 23
Sample Midtern and Student Answers
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