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22 September 2012

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading—treading—till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through —

And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum —
Kept beating—beating—till I thought
My Mind was going numb —

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,

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—
                                                                                          F340 (1862)  280

This is one of Dickinson’s most famous poems, typically (and soundly, I believe) interpreted as dissecting a mental breakdown.
        The poet’s physical body is treated metaphorically as funeral attendees and her aware self as the consciousness trapped helplessly within the funeral event. The consciousness feels under assault by “Boots of Lead” and a service that “like a Drum— / Kept beating—beating” until she felt her mind numbing. Interestingly, here as in “If your Nerve, deny you” Dickinson locates herself as somewhere other than her mind or her soul, for she not only feels her mind “going numb,” but hears a heavy coffin creaking “across my Soul.”
        I have never had a migraine, but those who have or who work with migraine sufferers claim the poem is a very good description of the pulsing, skull-filling pain that makes every noise painful if not excruciating. Indeed, some of the major imagery in the poem involves sound: there is the funeral service that beats and beats like a drum, the creaking of the heavy coffin carried across her soul, and the tolling of space “As [if] all the Heavens were a Bell.” In fact, the poet’s existence is reduced to being nothing but an “Ear.”
          Whether describing a migraine or a breakdown (or perhaps both), though, the poet’s aware self (that which encompasses and observes both mind and soul) is experiencing something very much like torture. The poem is one long single sentence connected with thirteen “and”s and additional implied ones as in “treading—treading” and “beating—beating.” The slow pace heightens the pain. It is very hard to read the poem in anything other than the dragging pace of a funeral.
 When Dickinson writes that the mourners kept treading through her brain in the leaden boots until “Sense was breaking through” she says two things: the actual physical sensations described have broken through into the brain itself as if it were a floor beneath the feet, and that her conscious senses were being broken—falling through the floor of the brain. This latter image sets up the last stanza when a “Plank in Reason” breaks and her aware self drops “down, and down” until ultimately it loses all knowledge and awareness.
        The fourth stanza is quite strange. The painful and pulsing noises become so overpowering that the poet finds herself in an altered state: “All the Heavens” become a “Bell” ringing with sound, while “Being” is reduced to being nothing but an ear. Her aware self, the “I,” is “Wrecked” there. It’s a frightening and utterly lonely image. There is no bedroom or bed, no loved ones, no window—nothing to grasp in any way that might help the sufferer hold on to reality.
        She does have a companion, however: “Silence.” This companion, wrecked and “solitary” with the poet’s aware self, is completely unexpected after all the merciless and excruciating pain. It makes sense as a “yoked opposite” —a term one Dickinson scholar has used to describe many of Dickinson’s images and phrases. When Being has been reduced to nothing but an ear and the heavens to a bell, the “strange Race” of Silence is necessarily a (silent) companion. It is as necessary as shadow to sun, as present as the existence of pain to the experience of joy.  **
        But the aware self cannot maintain this terrible quietus for long. In one of her strongest images, Dickinson has a “Plank in Reason” breaking. This image not only recalls the mourners treading back and forth across the floor, but suggests that there is a floor to our sanity, something that holds our sense of self and sanity together. But this has broken and so the poet’s self drops “down, and down” to unknowable places—a “World, at every plunge.” From the funereal pace of the previous four stanzas, Dickinson catapults us here to almost the speed of light. The word “plunge” not only denotes a forceful speed, but an almost willful act as that of a diver leaping from a cliff to plummet into a pool below. But in this case the self is out of control, careening downward from world to world as if there are different levels of subconscious realities that bear little resemblance to the everyday world we are familiar with.
        The final line, when “knowing” is finished, comes as an almost welcome and relief. Rest is finally achieved, both physical and mental. Dickinson is a poet who famously charts her conscious awareness far beyond the grave, and s this finishing of knowing is strikingly final.

** Addition: I was just rereading Elizabeth Barrett Browning's poem "A Vision of Poets" where a poet has been lead through trials to see a heavenly apparition of the great and long-dead poets. He is then shown an angel making a divine music that so rouses the spirits of the poet-listeners that "when it ceased, the blood which fell [from gaps where the poets' hearts once were], / Again, alone grew audible, / Tolling the silence as a bell."
        I'd like to re-write my whole commentary based on the insights from this poem, but instead will be content with saying that Dickinson's great Silence is calling on, among other things, Browning's ecstatic image of the poets' heart blood tolling like a bell.


  1. I'm a high school senior in AP Lit & Comp, and we were to choose an Emily Dickinson poem to lead a close reading of. This is the one I chose, probably because of the emotional impact of the first line. I related to it as I'm sure many others have; grief can come without a physical death, but our minds feel it the same way regardless.

  2. I'd be very interested in your notes -- if you'd share. It's a difficult and disturbing poem that bears multiple readings.

  3. You are in good company in reading this poem as a description of a mental breakdown. Helen Vendler -- a very close reader, interprets the poem the same way.

    However, I disagree. The poem describes two very different states of mind. The rhythm and repetitive words in the the first three stanzas certainly indicate intense, personal, emotion and mental stress. However, from the line "Then Space -- began to toll" through the end of the poem, something else entirely is happening. ED breaks through to an experience that is impersonal and liberating -- a direct experience that is unfiltered, not obscured by the depression and stress of the prior stanzas. The experience is vast and lonely -- if the self is transcended, what would be the experience?

    The last stanza of the poem describes something far from a mental breakdown. Reason, the logical mind, does not operate without reference points. If the poet is operating from the reference point of self, then everything is measurable and comprehensible -- graspable -- based on that. With reason and logic, we are in the realm of EDs poems that use metaphors of measurement and mathematics and limits. But in the last stanza of this poem, all that is transcended. What is experienced is beyond reason -- but entirely sane. It is the ineffable experience of truth -- the poet finishes -- knowing -- then. If you ask what is known, you have not shared the transcendent experience of the poem.

  4. I think I see what you mean: to finish "knowing" is, Buddha-like, to arrive at a place where the word has no particular meaning. In ED's case it might not mean enlightenment, and it may have come about through pain (including physical torment), but she has arrived at a transcendent experience. The rather cosmic Silence is a good indicator. Thanks for articulating this.

  5. You caught me! I am a Buddhist -- so it colors my view. I certainly don't expect that ED's poetry has anything explicitly or implicitly to do with Buddhism.


    1. However she was influenced by Transcendalism and there is a footprint there ...

  6. As always one major doorway to transcendence is death, and in this poem it is the death of thought itself.

    Lonely is different than solitary.

    I thought my mind was going numb is different than the actual Sense.

    In one teaching the Buddha said in hearing let it only be hearing, in seeing, only the seeing and the se for all sensing

  7. To finish: the same for all sensing, even thinking, which ends the subject object duality of I hear this.

    ED arrives at this non dual awareness through silence.

    When she falls through the plank of reason the end if knowing is the end of words being able to designate.

    She does not need to read Transcendentalists or know anything about Buddhism to arrive in vivo at her own mystic understanding.

    1. I think "Knowing" must apply to more than words. Things are known without words. Perhaps it is the sense of knowing that is finished -- that there is nothing than is known, or that the speaker knows.

  8. These interesting readings of this classic ED poem, beginning (I love it!) with a 21st century HS student's, are of course more complementary than contradictory. Cannot such breakthroughs begin in grief (or physical pain) and lead elsewhere? After all, the poem IS a narrative.
    That bell, of course, reminds one of the Buddhist use of a bell in meditative practice though, to leap through these other readings here, it also echoes (OK, inadvertent pun) Emerson's single eyeball. But I agree with the comment that the poet would not necessarily had read any Transcendentalism or Buddhist teaching to plunge through the course of these realizations; to craft this poem.

  9. When I read this poem I felt ED is describing a mystic transcendental experience. Masters of some Hindu disciplines teach to stop thoughts and listen for the sound of bell/drum (sabbah) which will take you to a different realm of reality. The experience itself feels like death "die to live" Masters say.. and she finished knowing -then- ...
    When I read ED poetry I always feel she has that conscious awareness which only comes with transcendental knowledge. Also her recluse life will also could be taken as a result of her mystical experiences.

    1. After reading this last comment and rereading the other comments -- and after having read and studied many more Dickinson poems, I can hardly believe I presented the migraine and mental breakdown interpretations as the most likely interpretations.

      It is hard for me to read the poem now without sensing transcendental realms -- the planks in reason breaking, the finishing of 'knowing'. Thank you -- and all the commenters -- for the insights.

  10. I’m still intrigued by the theory of her epilepsy, and having experience with epilepsy and it’s mysterious manifestations, this can also be a vivid transcription of an aura and it’s aftermath - the tonic-clinic phase of the seizure, in which consciousness departs (“ - then - “)
    The “every plunge” suggests the same repetitive beating (Golding described Simon’s aura as a “beating on the brain” also) that in the course of the seizure becomes the repetitive motions of convulsion, or “throe” in other ED contexts.

  11. Must be what it’s like
    From within a coffin’s hold
    Hear one’s own funeral


    1. Is this what death’s like
      To be conscious in box?
      No, our spirits soar