I felt a Funeral, in my Brain

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain The Poet as Mystic

There are deep historical and conceptual connections between the tradition of poetry and that of mysticism, understood as something like a quasi-religious practice that seeks to apprehend absolute truths beyond the reach of the “rational” intellect. As with most forms of art, poetry has its roots in religious practice—songs, chants, and hymns. With the development of Romanticism in English-language poetry, this connection took on a renewed and new significance. Poets such as William Blake, largely unrecognized during his lifetime but now often regarded as the quintessential Romantic poet-mystic, and William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge developed a kind of secular mysticism as part of the Romantic critique of the dominant scientistic rationalism that accompanied the Industrial Revolution.

In some ways, the tendency here was to reframe poetry itself as a quasi-mystical practice, a special kind of experience that allowed the poet to reach beyond the limits of the intellect/reason to grasp essential truths. However, “nature,”, and the closely related concept of “human nature,” came to replace, stand in for, or re-determine the concept of the “divine” in this sort of spiritualism. In Wordsworth and Coleridge’s romanticism—which, slightly distinct from Blake’s, was clearly the dominant literary romanticism at the time—the core mystical concept of transcendence—going beyond the limits of the self—was, so to speak, inverted. In poems such as Wordsworth's “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey,” the journey towards transcendence leads, at least at first, inward, rather than outward. In reorienting the trajectory of transcendence, these poets asserted the essential value of subjective experience. In doing so, as the literary historian and critic Raymond Williams has argued, they gave poetry a similarly authoritative position with respect to “experience” that science had with respect to the recently distinct, even opposed, term “experiment.” Literature, and ultimately art in general, Williams argues, came to be understood as offering “access to a truth ‘higher’ or ‘deeper’ than ‘scientific’ or ‘objective’ or ‘everyday’ reality; a claim consciously substituting itself for the traditional claims of religion” (p. 51, Marxism and Literature).

One way to understand the genesis of Emily Dickinson’s approach to poetry is as a synthesis of the Romantic-lyric tradition (she is occasionally referred to as a “post-lyric” or “post-Romantic” poet) with the more abstract, philosophical works of so-called “Metaphysical Poets” like John Donne, as well as more contemporary inheritors of that tradition such as Elizabeth Barrett Browning and, to some extent, Elizabeth's husband Robert Browning. Despite the fact that, in contrast to Wordsworth, Coleridge, and, most emphatically, Blake, there’s no evidence that Dickinson saw her poetry, or poetry in general, as a quasi-mystical practice of seeking higher truths, or saw herself as any kind of mystic possessed by ‘visions’ or ‘epiphanies,’ from the moment she began to be taken seriously by critics Dickinson was endowed with a definite mystical aura which it has proven exceedingly difficult to expunge.

In their introduction to the Blackwell Companion to Emily Dickinson, for example, the Dickinson scholars Martha Nell Smith and Mary Loeffelholz write that “Emily Dickinson (1830-86) is an author about whom almost every casual reader of American Literature knows something—if only the biographical myth of a woman in white, self-secluded in her father’s house, pouring out many hundreds of unpublished poems, probably driven by demons of love and loss.” The otherworldly quality of Dickinson’s poems has often, in turn, led critics to ascribe an otherworldly quality to the writer herself—a ghostly “woman in white” possessed by profound visions that she then recorded in her poems.

Many critics have devoted serious effort to disproving, or complicating, this way of understanding the genesis of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. Richard B. Sewall argues that, due to recent scholarship elucidating Emily Dickinson’s reading, her intellectual and poetic influences, “she can no longer be regarded, for all her withdrawn ways, as working in grand isolation, all uniqueness and originality” (p. 191, The Life of Emily Dickinson, vol.1). And in his essay “Dickinson and the Exception,” critic Max Cavitch argues that the idea of Dickinson as some sort of anomaly/inexplicable “exception” is symptomatic of the larger problematics in modern discourse around American exceptionalism and the concept of “genius” (pp. 222-233, Blackwell Companion).

While the range and complexity of these scholarly arguments are dizzying, most essentially they are arguments about how to approach the act of reading the poems themselves. And if we come to Dickinson’s work not as professional scholars but simply as readers, the best approach is always to look to how we feel the poems themselves are asking to be read. What we notice in “I felt a Funeral…”, specifically, is a kind of paradox: the highly literal, concrete language the poet uses in her exploration of abstract, metaphysical or philosophical themes ends up reinforcing our impression that the poet is describing some actual experience of her own, one which clearly lies far outside the bounds of regular experience, and therefore affords her some kind of mystical, special knowledge. The appeal of reading the poem in this manner is, in the words of critic Richard Poirier, that it “express[es] a desire that human attributes should exist that are beyond human understanding” (p. 68, The Renewal of Literature: Emersonian Reflections). Yet Dickinson’s poem is perhaps best understood as coming down on the side of the finitude, rather than potential boundlessness, of human capacities: after all, the speaker’s “fall”—unlike Adam and Eve’s—marks the end of “knowing,” rather than its beginning.