I felt a Funeral, in my Brain

Emily Dickinson

‘I felt a Funeral, in my Brain’ by Emily Dickinson is a popular poem. In it, she depicts a very unusual idea of life after death.


Emily Dickinson

Nationality: American

Emily Dickinson redefined American poetry with unique line breaks and unexpected rhymes.

Notable works include 'Because I could not stop for Death' and 'Hope is the Thing with Feathers.' 

Key Poem Information

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Central Message: Understanding other people's interior lives is difficult

Themes: Death, Identity, Journey

Speaker: Someone on the verge of mental collapse

Emotions Evoked: Anxiety, Confusion, Grief

Poetic Form: Ballad, Quatrain

Time Period: 19th Century

'I felt a Funeral, in my Brain' is a very famous poem and for good reason. It conveys an outlook on life that many readers will feel themselves inspired by.

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 picture 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 the speaker was talking about the death of her sanity rather than her own physical death. While both interpretations remain viable possibilities, there seem 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
Emily Dickinson

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,And Mourners to and froKept treading - treading - till it seemedThat Sense was breaking through -

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

And then I heard them lift a BoxAnd creak across my SoulWith 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 -
I felt a Funeral, in my Brain by Emily Dickinson

Detailed Analysis

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

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, so they have been given the capitalized letter for a proper noun.

Stanza Two

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.

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.

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,

The speaker’s sense of hearing and ability to feel is 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 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.

Stanza Four

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 is only an “Ear” that 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 her, 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.”

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 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.

Emily Dickinson Background

Emily Dickinson was well-known for her eerie poems, often written about death. Dickinson was in person as intensely introspective as her poems. Her writing correspondent, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, after visiting her in 1870, told his wife, “I was never with someone who drained my nerve power so much” (Higginson).

Only a few of Dickinson’s poems were published in her lifetime. She did not seek publicity and actually took great pains to keep her life separate from society. She did appear to be obsessed with the idea of death, as many of her poems centered around the idea. However, there is also evidence that her differences caused her to question her own sanity at times. Therefore, both interpretations presented here are supported by the evidence of the author’s life experiences.


What is the overall mood of ‘I felt a Funeral, in my Brain?’

The overall mood of the poem is one of despair and agony. The imagery and the intense language used by Dickinson contribute to a somber and oppressive atmosphere throughout the poem.

How does ‘I felt a Funeral, in my Brain‘ explore the theme of isolation?

The poem touches upon the theme of isolation by depicting the speaker’s internal struggle as an isolating experience. The funeral and mourners symbolize the disconnect between the speaker’s mental state and the outside world, emphasizing their profound sense of isolation.

What are some key symbols in ‘I felt a Funeral, in my Brain?’

The symbols in the poem include the funeral, the mourners, the tolling bell, and the void. These symbols serve to convey the speaker’s mental anguish and the overwhelming weight of their thoughts.

What is the theme of the poem ‘I felt a Funeral, in my Brain?’

The poem explores the theme of mental anguish and the gradual descent into madness. It delves into the internal turmoil and emotional breakdown experienced by the speaker.

How does the poem ‘I felt a Funeral, in my Brain’ relate to Emily Dickinson’s overall body of work?

The poem is representative of Emily Dickinson’s thematic preoccupations, such as death, mental anguish, and the exploration of the inner world. It showcases her unique poetic style, employing unconventional punctuation and capitalization to convey intense emotions and profound introspection.

Similar Poetry

Readers who enjoyed this poem should consider reading some of Emily Dickinson’s other poems. For example: 

  • Fame is a bee’ – talks about the transient nature of “fame” by using the metaphor of a “bee”. 
  • Hope is the Thing with Feathers’ – is a poem about hope. It is depicted through the famous metaphor of a bird.
  • The Letter’ – is a sweet love poem that is told from the perceptive of a love letter.

Poetry+ Review Corner

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain

Enhance your understanding of the poem's key elements with our exclusive review and critical analysis. Join Poetry+ to unlock this valuable content.

Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson wrote prolifically on her own struggles with mental health and no piece is better known than this one in that wider discussion of her work. Within the text she uses various metaphors, concerned with life and death, to discuss endings, beginnings and the deep, unshakable fear of losing one’s mind. The speaker depicts the slipping away of her sanity through the image of mourners wandering around in her head. They are in a cycle of sorts, unable to break out or change their pattern.
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19th Century

The poem's exploration of mental anguish, its vivid imagery, and its innovative use of language and structure are characteristic of Dickinson's unique poetic style in the 19th century. It is often included in anthologies and discussed in academic settings as a significant example of her literary contributions. This is a wonderful poem written during the 19th century but it is not particularly evocative of the period.
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This poem is regarded as an exemplary work of American poetry. It reflects the unique style and thematic preoccupations often associated with American poets, such as introspection, individualism, and a focus on the inner workings of the human mind.
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Death is central to this poem as images related to death, like darkness, tolling bells, and funeral imagery. The poem explores the psychological impact of death, focusing on the speaker's internal experience rather than the external event. Dickinson delves into the emotional turmoil caused by death, emphasizing the overwhelming weight it carries and its ability to consume one's thoughts and identity. The poem underscores the significance of death as a transformative force that can unravel the very core of an individual's being.
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This poem touches upon the theme of identity by depicting the unraveling of the speaker's sense of self. As the funeral procession progresses, the speaker's identity becomes fragmented, leading to a sense of disorientation and confusion. The poem suggests that death and mental anguish can challenge one's understanding of oneself.
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The poem portrays a psychological journey rather than a physical one. It follows the speaker's descent into madness as they navigate the labyrinth of their own mind. The funeral procession becomes a metaphorical journey through the speaker's inner landscape, marked by confusion, despair, and the eventual silence and darkness.
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Anxiety fills this piece as the speaker grapples with intense mental distress. The relentless repetition of the funeral march and the tolling bell create a sense of mounting anxiety, reflecting the speaker's increasing agitation and unease.
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The poem captures the disarray and disorientation experienced by the speaker as they descend into mental anguish. Dickinson's use of fragmented language, disjointed syntax, and disrupted punctuation contributes to the sense of confusion, reflecting the speaker's struggle to make sense of their own thoughts and the external world.
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Grief is a central emotion explored in the poem. The funeral procession symbolizes the mourning process, but rather than focusing on external grief, Dickinson delves into the internal grief experienced by the speaker. The relentless tolling of the funeral bell and the presence of mourners intensify the speaker's emotional distress, highlighting the overwhelming weight of grief and its ability to consume one's mind.
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This poem does not explicitly delve into the concept of an afterlife, it hints at the idea of a spiritual or psychological transition. The descent into darkness and silence at the end of the poem can be interpreted as a metaphorical representation of the afterlife or the complete detachment from reality.
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The poem explores aspects of the human experience, shedding light on the profound struggles and vulnerabilities of humanity. It delves into the depths of human consciousness, capturing the fragility of the human mind, the complexities of emotions, and the capacity for suffering.
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The poem confronts the changing nature of life and the looming presence of death. The funeral procession serves as a reminder of mortality, emphasizing the inevitability of one's own end. Dickinson's exploration of mortality underscores the existential questions that arise when faced with the fact that everyone's life eventually ends.
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Suffering is a recurring motif in the poem, as the speaker grapples with intense mental anguish. Dickinson portrays suffering as an all-consuming force that disrupts thoughts, fractures identity, and leads to a descent into madness.
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The poet does not strictly adhere to the traditional ballad form in this poem but it does share some characteristics with ballad poems. It employs a narrative structure, recounts a significant event, and contains elements of repetition and musicality. Dickinson's poem, however, deviates from traditional ballads in its introspective exploration of the speaker's internal turmoil.
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The poet uses four-line stanzas, or quatrains, throughout this poem. The poem's adherence to the quatrain form provides a sense of rhythmic balance and symmetry. Dickinson's use of quatrains allows for the development of the funeral procession as a narrative, heightening the emotional impact and creating a structured framework.
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Allisa Corfman Poetry Expert
Allisa graduated with a degree in Secondary Education and English and taught World Literature and Composition at the high school level. She has always enjoyed writing, reading, and analysing literature.

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