Like all of Dickinson’s poems, ‘I felt a Funeral, in my Brain’, is condensed and packed with striking imagery and stunning ideas. It is a terrifying poem, as the speaker explores the idea of what it would feel like to be conscious after death. The vivid description of her sense of hearing allows the readers to pictures themselves there in place of her, experiencing their own deaths in full consciousness. Some literary critics have suggested that this poem is not a description of the speaker’s own physical death, but rather a description of the death of some part of her that she was unable to retain. The words and imagery used suggest that perhaps that speaker was talking about the death of her sanity rather than her own physical death. While both interpretations remain viable possibilities, there seems to be greater connections and symbolism that support the idea of the speaker’s experiencing her own actual, physical death. Many of Dickinson’s other poems, including but not limited to “Because I Could Not Stop for Death” are also poems about the conscious experience of one’s own physical death. Both interpretations are presented here, beginning with the most likely interpretation that the speaker is in fact describing what it would be like to experience her own funeral in consciousness, while her body was dead.
I felt a Funeral, in my Brain Analysis
I felt a Funeral, In my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading-treading-till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through
Emily Dickinson, in this poem, writes everything through a keen sense of hearing. She hears all that is going on around her, and she feels it, but she cannot see it. First, she says that she felt a funeral in her brain. The beginning of this poem is quite striking to the readers. Many people have been to a funeral, seen a funeral, or heard about a funeral. But this opening line causes the readers to wonder what it would be like to feel a funeral. Most can relate to some extent, because they have felt grief and sorrow before. However, as Dickinson continues to describe the sounds and feelings she experiences, the readers soon become aware that this is not a normal feeling of sorrow or grief that comes from loss. This is something different, and entirely personal.
The speaker describes the treading. She can hear and feel people walking “to and fro”. And for a moment, she thinks that maybe she will be able to understand what it is that she is experiencing. This is why she says that she thinks that “sense was breaking through”. Dickinson uses capital letters for the words she wishes to personify as if they were proper nouns, actual beings. The Funeral is capitalized because it is as if it is a separate being that she is encountering. Likewise, “Brain” is capitalized, because it is almost as if her own brain is existing apart from herself in this experience. The “Mourners” are, of course, people and so they have been given the capitalized letter for a proper noun.
And when they all were seated
A Service, like a Drum-
Kept beating- beating- till I thought
My Mind was going Numb-
When her surroundings finally quiet down, the speaker can feel the silence and knows that the Mourners have been seated for the funeral. This is when she hears the drum roll in her mind. Again, “Drum” is capitalized here because it is as if it were a separate being, personified as the one bringing the bad news. And it kept beating until she thought she would lose consciousness altogether. Her “Mind” like her “Brain” seems to exist as a separate being altogether. The word “Numb” is also capitalized to personify it as something that is taking over her mind.
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 speaker’s sense of hearing and ability to feel are still the primary focus of ‘I felt a Funeral, in my Brain’, and she describes the sound of a box being lifted. “Box” is also capitalized to signify the importance. The second line of this stanza signifies something important. As the speaker hears a box being lifted, she also feels something “creak across [her] soul”. This hints that the funeral she has felt is actually her own. This is why she cannot see anything. She can, however, feel it. And she is only partly conscious of what is going on around her. When the box is lifted, however, and she feels it, the readers can begin to understand that this is in fact, her own funeral. Perhaps the readers can understand this before the speaker herself is able to.
In the third line of this stanza, she is being carried in her coffin to her burial place. And the sound of those who carry her there is like “Boots of Lead”. Again, the words “Boots” and “Lead” are capitalized because it is as if they are the ones doing the action of carrying her in her coffin. The final line in this stanza says that the “Space- began to toll”. The speaker can feel herself moving through space. She can hear the sound of the boots on the ground, but she cannot see what is happening.
As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being but an Ear.
And I, and Silence, some strange Race
Wrecked, solitary, here-
At this point in ‘I felt a Funeral, in my Brain’, it seems that the speaker is beginning to become aware of where she is and what is happening. She mentions Heaven, and the possibility that it is ringing its bells for her, and she being only an “Ear” can hear heaven calling to her. She cannot see what is going on around her, but she can hear and feel everything. And in this stanza, she begins to hear a metaphorical bell. The words “Bell” and “Ear” are capitalized, because she suggests that she herself has become nothing but an “Ear”. And the “Bell” is also a separate being, calling to her.
In the third line, the speaker realizes that she has become something strange. She is not among the human race anymore. This is why she says that she has become “some strange Race”. The word “Silence” is capitalized because it is personified as something that surrounds her and hovers over here and does not allow her to speak. It is what has made her a “strange Race”, a race that is not human. She becomes aware that she is alone. She is destroyed, and alone. This is why she says that she is “Wrecked” and “solitary”.
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 final stanza, the speaker becomes entirely aware of what has been happening to her. The funeral she felt in her brain, was her own. The coffin was her own. The “Boots of Lead” were those of her own pallbearers. She is silent because she is dead. She is blind because her eyes have been closed in death. She can hear, and she can feel, but she is no longer a living, breathing human being. This is the speaker’s terrifying description of death. In the first line of this stanza, she describes the “Plank” or piece of wood that broke as her coffin was lowered into the earth. She says that it broke in “Reason” because this is the moment when she became aware of what was actually happening. The word “Reason” is capitalized, because it is personified as the one who finally broke through to the speaker, causing her to become fully aware of what was happening to her. And as she “dropped down, and down” she claims that she “hit a World, at every plunge”. Worlds of different thoughts hit her as she plunged to her final resting place. Perhaps she felt confusion, panic, wonder, maybe even acceptance. The speaker does not explicitly explain the content or significance of the worlds that she experienced as she was being lowered into her grave, but she does reveal that when she came to the very bottom of her grave, the full realization of her own death dawned on her.