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Critical Essay: Symbolism in Dickinson's "I Felt a Funeral in My Brain"

written by: M.K.Rukhaya • edited by: Donna Cosmato • updated: 9/11/2012

Emily Dickinson’s “I Felt a Funeral in My Brain" was first published in The Poems of Emily Dickinson, Third Series in 1896.The poetess exemplifies the collapse of her abstract mental process through employing concrete metaphors.

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    Explication

    Emily Dickinson 

    Emily Dickinson was a recluse throughout her life and incorrigibly obsessed with the concept of death. The metaphor of the funeral brings in ideas of mourning, closure, depression, blankness and inactivity. Therefore, ‘funeral’ serves as an apt metaphor to express the turmoil in the mind of the speaker. The movement of the mourners is likened to the oscillating of a pendulum making its presence felt as time does with its omnipresence.

    The idea of ‘treading’ brings the impression of stamping feet, indicating a kind of pressure on the mental process and a steady increase in the same. The poem describes the onset of psychosis as the speaker struggles with her ego. The burden of the same gives the impression of sense ‘breaking through’. Here, 'sense' implies both sensory perception and rational thought. It reflects the quality of ‘sense’- being a fragile material that can be broken into a thousand pieces .Thereby; the poetess utilizes apt metaphors to connote the lack of coherence in her mind.

    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 –

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    The Metaphor of the Funeral

    The mourners appeared to be seated around her; the sense of mobbing leaves her in a claustrophobic atmosphere. The irrational impulse in her seems to beat like the funeral drum till the mind is benumbed. It is not aware of itself any longer and hence ‘benumbed’. The death of the person in question emblematizes the death of her sanity.

    The whole process of the funeral functions as an objective correlative to the inapprehensible process of the unconscious. Her immaterial thoughts are described in terms of material metaphors. One can discern that although she perceives the participants of the funeral and keeps an objective outlook of the same, she is also a subjective participant herself.

    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,

    Subsequently, it dawns on us that it is her own funeral. As they lift the box, a creak passes through her soul. It at once symbolizes her divided self. It also represents the state of the soul departing from the body.

    At the moment, the treading of the feet appears to be heavier; therefore, it is phrased as “Boots of Lead." Sylvia Plath utilizes the symbolism of the boot to signify oppression in her poem ’Daddy" Not only does lack of space upset Emily Dickinson now; she is also averse to the very idea of space. It begins to take a toll on her.

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    Sound and Sense

    The deterioration of her mind is echoed in the structure of the last two stanzas as highlighted by the lack of coherence in the sentence-structure and the absence of reason. Further, instead of all “Heavens were a Hell" we find the word ‘Bell’. The usage represents the utter turmoil in her mind like the gong of a bell. The only sense-perception working in her right now is her hearing ability, and therefore, she is reduced to an ear. She is subjected to a pandemonium of cacophony.

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    The Burial of Rational Thinking

    The only existent elements at the moment seem to be “I, and Silence, some strange Race." The word ’race’ may also signify that she belongs to a strange race now that she has lost her senses. The word ‘race’ also echoes that she is now caught in a strange race that has no destination and is therefore ‘bizarre’.

    She comes across as caught in an island by the terms ’solitary’ and wrecked’ as though her condition is caused by a ship-wreck. Moreover, her condition stands in strict opposition to the general state of normalcy, hence, the adjective ‘solitary’. There is an idea of repetition in actions like ‘treading’; and in alliteration with words like “Bell" and “Being".

    She is portrayed as hanging on to dear sanity supported just by a plank. Her condition is portrayed as insecure as standing on a plank that may give away at any moment. This plank is depicted as being broken in the last stanza.

    She falls down into her proverbial graveyard. As she traverses her own unconscious depths, she finally hits upon a new world every now and then as the human mind is conceived to be infinite. Each plunge is a stopping point for her. Her final articulation stops mid-way between a sentence revealing total discord.

    Just as death is the only irrefutable concept in the world, she was well aware of the fact that her transport into insanity was an undeniable truth. Moreover, like death is irreversible, her condition was irremediable. And just as death is beyond logic, she was beyond reasoning now. The burial at the end marks the burial of rational thinking

References

  • "Poems of Emily Dickinson: Hitherto Published Only in Part." The New England Quarterly 20 (1947).

     

  • Emily Dickinson, head-and shoulders portrait facing right by unknown author under Rights Advisory: no known restrictions on publications, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/96518224/resource/
  • http://www.emilydickinson.org/classroom/spring98/abbott.html