In “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” a first-person poetic speaker recounts a sequence of events best understood as an extended metaphor for a real or imagined experience of psychic pain, confusion, and an encounter with the fact of human mortality. In roughly the first three stanzas, Dickinson offers further description of the “Funeral,” ending each one with the effect or reaction of the speaker.
The latter third of the poem becomes increasingly abstract as it opens up onto explicit meditation on such concepts as the “Heavens,” “Being,” “Reason,” the nature of knowledge, and, arguably, the experience of death itself. The straightforwardly narrative language Dickinson uses—placing the “events” of the poem sequentially by means of regular conjunctions such as “then” and “and”—as well as the insistent physicality of her images allows the reader to feel as though we’re “following” the poem, despite the increasing complexity of its conceptual leaps. Dickinson sustains this generative contradiction through to the poem’s last line— “And finished Knowing - then -” which, though on one level having a tone of finality, is simultaneously radically open in its ambiguity and provocation of a wide range of interpretations.
Emily Dickinson had a remarkable talent for crafting opening lines that, read even once, the reader is likely to remember for years to come, and “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” exemplifies this ability. More than just a “hook” to draw the reader in, the compelling yet deeply obscure opening of the poem reflects the complexity of the ideas and experiences Dickinson intends to explore. For example, one of the more striking features of this line and of the poem as a whole is the combination of consistently literal/physical imagery with its fundamentally metaphorical and abstract character, as in the choice of “Brain” (vs the later appearance of “Mind”).
One reading of this poetic approach is that Dickinson intends to parse out two “levels” of experience, so to speak, that normally we’d tend to view as equally “psychological.” The concrete imagery of the “Funeral”—complete with Mourners, “A Service, like a Drum,” and the attendant noises and activities of the ceremony—apparently occurring in the speaker’s (physical) “Brain” implicitly contrasts this experience with the thoughts, feelings, and reactions that take place in her “Mind.”
On the level of form, Dickinson reinforces this sense of two distinct “levels” of experience by means of parallelisms of rhythm, stanzaic construction, and syntax. Each of the first three stanzas follows a very similar pattern, in which the first three lines describe the “Funeral” while the last appears to step outside the metaphor. Likewise, the second, third, and fourth lines of the first stanza are virtually identical in syntax and meter to the corresponding lines in the second stanza—“And Mourners to and fro / Kept treading - treading - till it seemed / That Sense was breaking through -” vs “A service, like a Drum / Kept beating - beating - till I thought / My Mind was going numb -”. In each case, a six-syllable line that falls most closely into three iambs (pairs of unstressed syllables followed by a stressed one) is followed by one where the more jarring, repeated trochees of “treading” and “beating” dominate the middle of the line.
Yet Dickinson also complicates these strong parallelisms and repetitions at the level of form by pairing them with a clear development or progression in terms of the poem’s themes. Most significantly, the “my Brain” of the first line becomes the more subjective or “immediate” “My Mind” in the last line of the second stanza. Likewise, the formal parallels of “till it seemed / That Sense was breaking through” and “till I thought / My Mind was going numb” also serve to highlight their contrasting features, such as the first appearance in the poem of the “I” in “I thought,” which replaces the more neutral and impersonal “it seemed,” and the move from the likewise impersonalized “Sense was breaking through” to the directly subjective “My mind was going numb.”
Any reading of the “I felt a Funeral…” must account for how these formal and thematic developments set up, so to speak, the dramatic turn initiated by the line “Then Space - began to toll.” In the last two stanzas, the poem opens up onto an expansive, even cosmic perspective and series of contemplations of the nature of existence itself. Two ways to begin such a reading might be to see the speaker’s movement from the (merely) biological/physical “Brain” to “Mind,” and, as we noted above, her adoption of a more subjective register in reaction to the “Funeral” indicates her deepening acknowledgment of the content of this “Funeral” as belonging to her—her own psyche.
Another would be to say that this progressive integration of the “Funeral” into the speaker’s own consciousness becomes increasingly painful or oppressive. First, the “treading” becomes the more violent “beating,” causing the speaker’s “mind” to become “numb,” This trajectory could be said to culminate in the image, immediately preceeding the line “Then Space - began to Toll” of “those same Boots of Lead, again,” a phrase which, in a 19th-century context, evokes a range of medieval and early-modern torture techniques, such as filling the boots of the victim with molten lead.
Whether the speaker’s telling us that “And then a Plank in Reason, broke, / And I dropped down, and down -” represents a further development of this same vision, or a rupture in it, doesn’t permit any definitive answer. Are the “World[s]” she “hit[s]” at “every plunge” a discovery, perhaps of other, possibly less circumscribed and hopeless, places one could be “here”? Are we meant to think that it’s merely the limits of “Reason” that have reduced this world to solitary silence? Or is this a kind of final fall—perhaps from grace, perhaps into death (as though that were the only way to fall back “out” of the knowledge Adam and Eve “fell” into), and the worlds she hits merely possibilities already foreclosed? Rather than achieving any fixed lesson or meaning, the power of Dickinson’s poem is that, to answer the questions it prompts in us, we must try to have an ear for “Being” as acute as the poet’s own.