I felt a Funeral, in my Brain

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

The Funeral (Allegory)

Because of the extensive, detailed description afforded it, the “Funeral” is best understood as functioning as an allegory, though it is far from the classical form of allegory in which it is made explicit what abstract concepts correspond to each narrative figure. Since the funeral occurs in the (physical) “brain” of the speaker, one way to read it is as an attempt to describe the physical experience of psychic pain, or of a death of a part of one’s self. It can also be read—without conflicting with the reading outlined above—as an implicit critique of the increasingly dominant scientific perspective of Dickinson’s time. Clearly, the attempt to locate whatever experience is being described in the “brain” never even gets off the ground; the necessarily subjective “sense” immediately threatens to “break through,” and the effects this experience on the speaker can only be understood with recourse to the reaction triggered in her “mind.”

Boots of Lead (Symbol)

As mentioned above, the most plausible connotation of this phrase—if it is, in fact, meant to recall some pre-existent meaning outside the context of the poem—is of a range of torture devices involving boots made of lead, or filled with molten lead (with the feet of the prisoner inside). There isn’t, however, sufficient evidence in the poem or in Dickinson’s correspondence to say definitively whether this connotation does in fact apply. It’s equally possible that the “Boots of Lead” are simply a symbol of how much the “treading” of the mourners weighs on the speaker’s “mind.” They might also symbolize the encumbered/hobbled nature of the speaker’s thoughts, or line of thinking, for which the funeral as a whole is a potential allegory.

Sounds of the Mourners (Motif)

The ultimate significance of sound in “I felt a Funeral…,” signaled by its presence in crucial lines such as “Space - began to toll / As all the Heavens were a Bell, / And Being, but an Ear…,” should prompt us, as readers, to attend carefully to the mentions of sound throughout the description of the funeral that opens the poem. Though not explicitly described as a sound, the rhythm of phrases such as the mourner’s “treading, treading” and the “beating, beating” of the “Drum” encourages the reader to “hear” these actions, just as the diction and repetition give the implicit sounds an oppressive feel, that appears to cause the speaker’s “mind” to go “numb” (a feeling that can be described as “deadening,” or perhaps as a way of dying/being closed off from experience).

Just as the scene seems on the cusp of reaching its climactic moment—the actual burial, which the speaker immediately appears to repress by describing what is clearly a coffin as merely a “Box”—it’s interrupted by another sound, the “toll[ing]” of “Space.” The expansive tenor of capital-S-“Space,” as well as the majestic feel of “toll,” forms an immediate contrast with the almost claustrophobic feeling created by the motif of sounds throughout the “funeral”—as though we, together with the speaker, have been suddenly transported from some basement-like space (from which we hear the “creak” of the “Boots of Lead” moving about above”) to an encounter with the vast, limitless sound of the “Heavens.”