I Felt a Funeral in My Brain

I Felt a Funeral in My Brain by Emily Dickinson

Q. Critically explain and analyze Emily Dickinson’s poem, I Felt a Funeral in My Brain.

A line-by-line analysis of the poem I Felt a Funeral in My Brain

Stanza 1
I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
And Mourners to and fro
Kept treading – treading – till it seemed
That Sense was breaking through –

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,
The poem uses the metaphor of a funeral as a way to express the feeling of severe mental or emotional distress. The funeral signifies an ending or a death. Given that it’s taking place in the speaker’s brain, this could imply the death or end of a particular thought, a belief, a way of life, or even sanity itself.

The phrase “I felt” shows that the experience is deeply personal and subjective. Something happening within the speaker’s mind shows a profound internal struggle.

The word “Brain” here is significant as well. It does not only refer to the physical organ but also stands for the mind, with all its capabilities for thought, understanding, and emotion.

And Mourners to and fro
“Mourners” typically refer to the people who attend a funeral to grieve the loss of the person who has died. In this context, however, the mourners are within the speaker’s brain, suggesting that they are not physical entities but symbolic or imagined ones.
They may represent various aspects of the speaker’s mind or emotions involved in this internal “funeral.” The phrase “to and fro” shows movement back and forth.
This could suggest the speaker’s restlessness or symbolize the cyclical nature of specific thought patterns.

It might also evoke the image of mourners pacing in grief or uncertainty, further emphasizing the atmosphere of confusion.

Kept treading – treading – till it seemed
The word “treading” suggests continuous, repetitive motion. It could evoke the image of the mourners pacing back and forth, adding to the sense of restlessness and unease.

The repetition of the word “treading” also emphasizes this ongoing, ceaseless movement, perhaps suggesting the relentless nature of the speaker’s distressing thoughts.

In a broader sense, “treading” could also symbolize the struggle to keep going amidst difficulty.

The phrase “till it seemed” shows that this treading is leading up to some kind of change or realization, which is then explored in the following lines of the poem.

That Sense was breaking through –
“Sense” could refer to understanding, reason, or sanity. In the context of the funeral metaphor, it might represent a moment of clarity or comprehension in the middle of a mental or emotional breakdown.

The phrase “breaking through” implies that this sense of understanding is emerging beneath the distress represented by the funeral. It suggests that the continuous “treading” of the mourners has led to some form of insight or awareness.

However, given the poem’s overall tone and the intense distress depicted in the preceding lines, this “breaking through” of sense might not be a comforting revelation. It could also further deepen the speaker’s mental or emotional turmoil.

Stanza 2
And when they all were seated,
A Service, like a Drum –
Kept beating – beating – till I thought
My mind was going numb –

And when they all were seated
When a funeral service begins, it is customary for attendees (in this case, the “mourners”) to take their seats. This line might shift the poem from the restless movement of the mourners “treading – treading” to a more static, focused moment. It also shows the speaker’s mental transition from agitation to a potentially more intense form of distress.

Remember that the “mourners” here aren’t literal people but symbolic representations of something within the speaker’s mind. Their seating could represent different aspects of the speaker’s emotions settling into a new state or condition.

A Service, like a Drum
In a traditional funeral service, there are often eulogies, prayers, and moments of reflection. However, Dickinson describes the service as “like a Drum,” which might seem unexpected.
We know a drum as a percussive instrument with a loud, persistent beat. It doesn’t usually associate with the solemnity and quiet reflection found in a funeral service.

This comparison could be a way to convey the overwhelming and intrusive nature of the speaker’s mental distress. Just as a drum produces a powerful, constant beat that can drown out other sounds, the speaker’s internal turmoil might be so intense and all-consuming that it drowns out other thoughts or feelings.

Alternatively, the drum could symbolize a monotonous, relentless rhythm that the speaker feels trapped in, much like the repetitive, unceasing “treading” mentioned earlier in the poem.

Kept beating – beating – till I thought
The drum symbolizes a metaphorical funeral in the speaker’s mind. It continues to beat, symbolizing an ongoing service. This constant beat highlights the unending nature of the speaker’s internal distress.

The repetition of the word “beating” highlights the unending, rhythmic pounding that the speaker experiences. This beat could represent intrusive thoughts, a surge of emotions, or the constant presence of mental distress.

The phrase “till I thought” suggests that this relentless beating leads to some form of realization or mental activity for the speaker. The drumbeat continues until it provokes some kind of response in the speaker’s mind, which will be elaborated in the following lines of the poem ‘I Felt a Funeral in my Brain’.

My mind was going numb.
The relentless “beating – beating” of the metaphorical drum (or the internal turmoil it represents) eventually causes the speaker’s mind to go “numb.” This could imply a few things:
  1. Overwhelm: The speaker might be so overwhelmed by her mental and emotional distress that she begins to feel detached from her thoughts and feelings, a state often referred to as numbness.
  2. Exhaustion: The numbness could also signify mental exhaustion. The relentless “beating” of the drum (or the persistent distress it represents) might have worn the speaker out to the point of emotional fatigue or burnout.
  3. Defence Mechanism: Numbness can also be a psychological defence mechanism, a way for the mind to protect itself from intense pain or distress by shutting down or dulling emotions.

Stanza 3
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,

And then I heard them lift a Box
The phrase “I heard them lift” suggests that the speaker is not directly involved in this action but is an observer of it. This could reinforce the idea of detachment or disconnection mentioned earlier in the poem. 

The “Box” here likely refers to a coffin, consistent with the funeral imagery. This signifies the lifting of the coffin, which is typically done to carry it to the grave. In the context of the poem’s metaphor, it could symbolize a shift in the speaker’s mental state, possibly indicating a further decline or the onset of a new stage of distress.

And creak across my Soul
The word “creak” typically denotes a harsh, grating sound often associated with strain or pressure, like the sound of heavy wooden planks or old doors under stress.
In the poem’s context, it could symbolize the strain or distress that the speaker’s soul is experiencing. It also creates an eerie, unsettling auditory image contributing to the poem’s sombre and disquieting tone.

The phrase “across my Soul” suggests that the impact of whatever is happening is not just mental (as shown by “Brain” in the first line of the poem) but also spiritual or existential.

The “Soul” usually refers to the spiritual or immaterial part of a human being, often considered immortal. In some interpretations, the soul is viewed as a person’s essence or true self.

So, in this line, the funeral procession is now crossing the speaker’s soul, indicating that the speaker’s very essence or core being is being affected. This could signify a profound existential crisis, a deep inner turmoil that’s both mental and spiritual.

With those same Boots of Lead, again,
“Boots of Lead” is a striking metaphor that most likely signifies an intense weight or burden. Lead is a hefty metal, so boots made of lead would be tough to move in, symbolizing the overwhelming and debilitating nature of the speaker’s mental or emotional distress.

The phrase “those same” suggests that this isn’t the first time the speaker has felt this way. The heavy boots have been here before, indicating that the speaker’s experience might be recurrent.

The word “again” reinforces this idea of repetition. The speaker is experiencing the same heavy, burdensome feelings she has felt before, contributing to the poem’s overall sense of despair and hopelessness.

Then Space – began to toll
“Space” could refer to the mental or psychological space within the speaker’s mind. However, it could also be interpreted in a more existential or spiritual sense, as in the fabric of the speaker’s being or reality.
It could also symbolize loneliness, emptiness, or the void one might feel in a deep despair or existential crisis.

The verb “to toll” usually refers to the slow, solemn ringing of a bell, especially a large bell used to mark the hour or to signal a death or a funeral. So when Space begins to toll, it suggests a deep, reverberating sense of sorrow permeating the speaker’s existence.

The tolling could also signify the passage of time, which can often seem slow, heavy, or distorted during periods of intense distress.

Stanza 4
As all the Heavens were a Bell,
And Being, but an Ear,
And I, and Silence, some strange Race,
Wrecked, solitary, here –

As all the Heavens were a Bell
When the “Heavens” are likened to a “Bell,” it suggests a vast, all-encompassing sound or vibration. In this context, it can symbolize the enormity of the speaker’s internal turmoil.
The “Heavens” traditionally symbolize a place of divine presence, peace, and eternity, but here, compared to a bell, it seems to resonate with the speaker’s sorrow.

Comparing the Heavens to a bell also extends the previous line’s image of space tolling. This imagery suggests a grand, cosmic bell ringing.

Further, it highlights the depth and intensity of the speaker’s struggle. The line paints a picture of personal experiences, like the speaker’s turmoil, resonating in the wider universe

 It brings a universal or cosmic dimension to the speaker’s individual experience.

And Being, but an Ear
It suggests that the speaker’s existence or “Being” has been reduced to simply an “Ear” – a receptor of the cosmic tolling expressed in the previous line.

This line might imply that the speaker’s distress is so all-consuming that it has taken over her entire existence. All she can do is listen to the tolling of the space “as all the Heavens were a Bell.” 

The speaker is not engaging with her surroundings but merely receiving and internalizing the sounds of her internal turmoil resonating with the cosmos.

By reducing “Being” to “an Ear,” Dickinson highlights the idea of passivity, of being subjected to an experience rather than actively participating. This can be a common feeling in deep emotional or mental distress.

This line explores the speaker’s existential crisis, suggesting that her distress has become her reality. 

And I, and Silence, some strange Race,
It offers a shift in the poem’s narrative, introducing a new element – “Silence” – and setting up a peculiar comparison to a “strange Race.”

The speaker refers to themselves and “Silence” as participants in a race, a metaphor that could symbolize several things in the poem I Felt a Funeral in my Brain.

The race is a  competition between the speaker and silence. One might struggle between the desire to express oneself and the overpowering force of silence.”

Referring to this as a “strange Race” suggests that this is an unusual, perhaps disorienting experience for the speaker.

Wrecked, solitary, here –
Wrecked” implies a state of ruin or destruction, suggesting that the speaker’s mental and emotional turmoil has left her broken.

“Solitary” refers to being alone, reinforcing the isolation and loneliness implied earlier in the poem. The speaker is not just solitary physically but also feels alone in her suffering.

“Here” locates the speaker in the present moment, emphasizing the immediate and pressing nature of her experience.

Stanza 5
And then a Plank in Reason, broke,
And I dropped down, and down –
And hit a World, at every plunge,
And Finished knowing – then –

And then a Plank in Reason, broke
The speaker metaphorically describes a failure in her ability to reason or think logically.

The “Plank in Reason” suggests a support structure for rational thought and understanding. When it “broke,” it implies a collapse or failure in this cognitive function. This breakdown could be due to the intense emotional or mental distress the speaker has been describing throughout the poem I Felt a Funeral in my Brain.

The breaking of this plank could represent a moment of crisis when the speaker’s distress becomes so severe that she loses her ability to understand or make sense of her experiences. It could symbolize a state of confusion, disorientation, or a feeling of losing control.

And I dropped down, and down
In this line, the speaker continues the metaphor of her mental collapse, illustrating her descent into an even deeper mental or emotional turmoil.

The repeated phrase “and down” signifies an uncontrollable fall, perhaps into confusion. 

The sensation of falling often symbolizes a loss of control. In this context, it could represent the speaker’s feeling intensified by her emotional distress.

And hit a World, at every plunge
“World” typically symbolizes something vast and huge. The speaker mentions, “hit a World.” It seems like she’s interacting with a universe of thoughts or feelings. These are significant and have a big impact.

The speaker talks about mental and emotional turmoil. Each “World” might be a new level of her suffering. It could also be a different aspect of her experience.

So, “Hitting a World” in the poem ‘I Felt a Funeral in my Brain’ is about experiencing intense moments as the speaker falls deeper into her discomfort.

“At every plunge” implies an ongoing action, suggesting that the speaker repeatedly encounters these “Worlds” as she continues to fall or sink into her tension.

And Finished knowing – then –
In this line, the speaker suggests that her descent into emotional or mental turmoil has reached a point where she no longer understands.

The phrase “Finished knowing” implies a complete stoppage of comprehension. In the poem’s context, the speaker’s distress has become so intense that it has pushed her beyond her ability to reason and think.

“Then” serves as a time marker, indicating that this suspension of knowing occurs after the speaker encounters the “Worlds” at every plunge, as described in the previous line. 

This suggests a progression of events where the speaker’s crisis deepens to losing all sense of awareness.

Dickinson’s unique poetic style is evident in her other poems like I’m No Body! Who Are You? Her poetic style consists of unconventional punctuation, slant rhyme, short lines and stanzas, capitalization for emphasis, etc.

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