I felt a Funeral, in my Brain

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain Themes

The limits of knowledge and reason

One of the core concerns of this poem is the exploration of the limits of rational human understanding— both where they “end” (stop) and their "ends" (goals). Dickinson begins her short poem by locating the “Funeral” in what is ostensibly the seat, and the source, of knowledge, reason, and rationality: the “Brain.” But her specific choice of words—‘brain’, not ‘mind’—is crucial here. This decision to use a word for the literal, physical organ, taken together with the words that open the poem (“I felt”), signals that, counterintuitively, Dickinson is implying that we are in fact in the realm of immediate, visceral experience, not that of thought. Her subsequent description of the funeral, in which she catalogs its various traditional elements (themselves part of a ritual designed to provide a comprehensible framework for an incomprehensible event, death) can be seen as an oblique representation of the speaker’s attempt to rationalize this feeling. And after all, it’s not clear how precisely one could ‘feel’ something like a ‘funeral’ at all. More than Dickinson’s famous obscurity, we might take this as further evidence that the speaker is attempting to repress the actual “feeling” she is having, which is perhaps closer to the one that emerges later in the poem with the lines: “And I, and Silence, some strange Race / Wrecked, solitary, here -”. At the end of the poem, we see this metaphorical rationalization break down completely: the “Plank in Reason” (the metaphorical valence of “plank” as a central item of a policy or program is also pertinent) that breaks recalls the imagery of the mourners “creak[ing] across my Soul,” leaving her to plummet into depths far beyond the reach of human understanding.


Death appears frequently in Emily Dickinson’s poetry, though rarely in literal form, and often in ways, as in this poem, that make it difficult to see how exactly the concept applies (see: “Because I could not stop for Death…”). In this poem, significantly, “death” itself isn’t mentioned at all, only its ceremonial trappings. The closest we get is the mention of a “Box”—presumably a coffin. Thus death is here, as it is arguably in much of Dickinson’s poetry, considered primarily in terms of how it shapes the behaviors, and psyches, of the living. On one reading, this “Funeral” is an attempt by the speaker to “bury” the fact of death, to neutralize the devastating fact of it through ritual, as we do at real funerals. The “box,” however, never makes it into the ground, and the speaker finds herself alone—perhaps, in a sense, “bereaved,” surrounded by “Silence.” We might say that ultimately, it is the speaker’s capacity for reason, for rationalization, that gives way under the weight of the fact of death.

Listening and silence

From the word “felt” in the first line, which connotes both physical contact and emotional-intellectual perception, Dickinson’s poem quickly becomes oriented around sound (or lack thereof), listening, and hearing. The lines that are perhaps the most crucial, and certainly the most perplexing, in the poem revolve entirely around sound: “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 -.” But the only way to develop a reading of these lines is to attend to how Dickinson develops the theme of sound throughout the poem. Her equating of the oppressive “treading, treading” of the mourners with the “beating, beating” of the “Service, like a Drum”—through precise parallelisms in syntax, meter, and their positions in their respective stanzas—emphasizes how sound, as compared to sight, is often a profoundly physical experience. One might say: we ‘participate’ in hearing, in sound, in a way that we don’t with sight, or smell (imagine trying to say “If a tree falls in the forest, and nobody is there to see it, does it make a sight?”) And yet it is also, paradoxically, definitively immaterial (there is no "object" that is heard, the way there is an object that is seen) which is why the fact that the speaker only ever hears the mourners lends them a distinctively ghostly quality. Thus the vision Dickinson offers is one in which (note the capital B) “Being” is attuned to, reverberates with, the sound of the Heavens. What’s uncanny about the “strange Race” the speaker belongs to (ostensibly the human one)—what cuts us off from “Being”—is, so to speak, that we merely ‘have’ an ear. We don’t hear ‘Space’ ‘Toll’; we’re simply ‘here.’