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280 in Manuscript
from The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson, Volume I.
Ed. R. W. Franklin. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1981.
Copyright ? 1981 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College340 I felt a funeral in my brain
MANUSCRI PT: About summer 1862, in Fascicle 16 (H 53)
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 -
10 Soul] written
19 plunge,] Crash –
20 Finished] Got through –
Division 3 till | 7 till | 9 them | 10 my] my
12 toll, || 13 were | 15 some | 17 in|
18 and | 19 every |
PUBLICATION: Poems (1896), 168, without the last stanza. Bingham, New England
Quarterly, 20 (March 1947), 26-27, entire, from a transcript of A (A 1896PC,
141). The alternatives were not adopted. Poems (1955), 199-200; CP (1960),
128-129. MB (1981), 341-42, in facsimile. (J280).
17-20] omitted P96 CP24 P30 P37
From The Poems of Emily Dickinson. Edited by R. W. Franklin. Copyright ? 1998
by The President and Fellows of Harvard College.
We may speculate that the poem charts the stages in the speaker’s loss of
consciousness, and this loss of consciousness is a dramatization of the deadening forces
that today would be known as repression. We may further suppose that the speaker is
reconstructing—or currently knowing—an experience whose pain in the past
rendered it impossible to know. We note that part of the strangeness of her speech lies in
the fact that not only is the poem grammatically past tense, but it also seems emotionally
past tense. It illustrates the way in which one can relate experience and, at the same
time, suffer a disassociation from it. Of course in this case the experience itself is one
of disassociation. Since the speaker adds no emotive comment to the recollection, it is as
if even in the recounting the words did not penetrate the walls of her own understanding.
That the poem is about knowledge and the consequence of its repression is clear enough
from the poem’s initial conceit, for people do not feel funerals and certainly not in the
brain. In addition, as a consequence of the persistent downward motion of the poem, we see
that the funeral is rendered in terms of a burial, and this fusion or confusion points to
a parallel confusion between unconsciousness and death. The burial of something in the
mind—of a thought or experience or wish—the rendering of it unconscious, lacks
an etiology; its occasion and even content here remain unspecified. As a consequence our
attention is fixed on the process itself.
Examining the conceit, we can speculate that the mourners represent that part of the
self which fights to resurrect or keep alive the thought the speaker is trying to commit
to burial. They stand for that part of the self which feels conflict about the repressive
gesture. "Treading—treading—," the self in conflict goes over the same
ground of its argument with itself, and sense threatens to dissolve, "break
through—," because of the mind’s inability to resolve its contradictory
impulses. In the second stanza, on a literal level the participants of the funeral sit for
the service and read words over the dead. On a figural level the confusion of the mind
quiets to one unanimous voice issuing its consent to the burial of meaning. But the mind’s
unanimity, its single voice, is no less horrible. The speaker hears it as a drum:
rhythmic, repetitious, numbing. In the fourth stanza, the repressive force lashes the
speaker with retaliatory distortion: the "Heavens" and the cosmos they represent
toll as one overwhelming "Bell"; "Being" is reduced to the
"Ear" that must receive it. No longer fighting the repressive instinct (for the
"Mourners" have disappeared, "Being" and "I" are united),
the self is a victim passively awaiting its own annihilation. When the "Plank in
Reason," the last stronghold to resist its own dissolution, gives, and the speaker
plummets through successive levels of meaning (an acknowledgment that repression has
degrees), the result is a death of consciousness. As J. V. Cunningham remarks, the poem is
a representation of a "psychotic episode" at the end of which the speaker passes
But if we agree that the poem is not about actual death, why is the funeral rendered in
such literal terms, terms that might well lead a careless reader to mistake its very
subject? Paul de Man, distinguishing between irony and allegory, provides a suggestive
answer. Allegory, he writes, involves "the tendency of the language toward narrative,
the spreading out along the axis of an imaginary time in order to give duration to what
is, in fact, simultaneous within the subject." The structure of irony is the reverse
of this form—the reduction of time to one single moment in which the self appears
double or disjoint. Irony, de Man writes, is "staccato . . . a synchronic
structure, while allegory appears as a successive mode capable of engendering duration as
the illusion of a continuity that it knows to be illusory." Irony and allegory, he
concludes, are two faces of the same experience, opposite ways of rendering sequence and
doubleness. De Man’s distinctions are illuminating for our understanding of the fusions in
"I felt a Funeral in my Brain," for the poem exhibits a double sense of its own
experience and of the form in which that experience is to be rendered. With no terms of
its own, it is through its very disembodiment, its self-reflexive disassociation, that the
experience wields the power it does. If it could be made palpable and objectified, it
might be known and hence mastered. Thus the allegory of the funeral attempts to
exteriorize and give a temporal structure to what is in fact interior and simultaneous.
Because we see the stages of the funeral (stages that correspond to steps that will
complete the repressive instinct) we cannot help but view repression in terms of death.
Thus the funeral imagery, replete with mourners, coffin, and service, seems both to
distract from the poem’s subject of repression and to insist on the severity of its
consequences. But it is in the tension between the two modes of knowing and of
representation, between an allegorical structure and an ironic one, that the poem’s
interest lies. For structure and sequence fall away in the ironic judgment of the
poem’s last line, which suggests, if implicitly, that action (exteriority) and
knowledge (interiority) will always diverge. Even the attempt to reconstruct the
experience and do it over with a different consequence leads, as it did the first time, to
blankness. This divergence is further exemplified in the odd order of the poem’s events:
the funeral precedes death, at least the death of consciousness. Such inversion of normal
sequence necessitates a figural reading of the poem and makes perfect sense within it, for
Dickinson seems to be claiming we cannot "not know" in isolation and at will.
What we choose not to know, what we submerge, like the buried root of a plant that sucks
all water and life toward its source, pulls us down with a vengeance toward it.
from Lyric Time: Dickinson and the Limits of Genre. Copyright ? 1979 by The
Johns Hopkins UP.
I have written elsewhere of this poem that it
represents the making of a though unconscious (LT, pp. 96-98). The poem cannot
represent a literal funeral, since people do not feel funerals, they attend them. They
also do not feel funerals in the brain. Moreover, here the funeral seems to precede the
death as well as the burial of the thing which is ceremonially presided over. Since what
is in the brain that can be buried is a thought, the poem, I have argued, represents
ambivalence about making a thought unconscious. Ambivalence is epitomized by the mourners,
who could be understood to lament the burial of the thought, although, ultimately, in
sitting for the ceremony, they also come to consent to it. Ambivalence is definitely
underscored by the second of the variants and the variant grammar it gives the poem’s
final line (fig. 10, second manuscript page of "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain").
For that variant, written below and to the right of the word on the line, makes it unclear
whether knowing is finished (there being no longer any knowing, but only unconsciousness),
or whether what is "Got through—" is the experience of unconsciousness,
which leaves "knowing" in its wake. In the second way of reading the poem’s last
line, according not only to its variant but also to its variant grammar, knowing is what
begins at the poem’s end, rather than what concludes. Finally, a third way of reading the
variants is to see them in relation: that is, they precisely dramatize the conflict
registered throughout the poem, and, as I have tried to illustrate, throughout the earlier
poems in the fascicle. As noted, this conflict is registered in miniature by the
alternative words—and the alternative punctuation of the same words, as exemplified
by the possibly implicit but absent comma of "Finished[,]
knowing—then—" and the absent comma of "Finished
knowing—then—." Thus the implicit double grammar, raised both by the
variant and by a closer scrutiny of the line itself, equivocates whether knowing is
finished, or whether it survives when the experience recorded by the poem is finished.
A related ambiguity is reiterated in the poem’s
fourth line, where "Sense . . . breaking through—" connotes that sense is
either "breaking down" or, idiomatically, "emerging." In the first
understanding, sense’s breaking through consciousness means the speaker’s breaking down
because sense falls out or away once it breaks through (not because the verb
"breaking" itself necessarily means "collapsing"). And a similar
ambiguity is reiterated in the peculiar formulation of the second to last stanza: "I,
and Silence, some strange Race." The line raises the question of whether the status
of personhood is being conferred upon silence or of whether the speaker, by allying
herself with something non-human, inanimate, not even palpable, is herself ceding that
status. For the speaker seems to personify silence and identify herself with it. If the
conjunction is so construed, she and silence might have equal status, might even be
considered to form a "Race." Alternatively, since silence doesn’t have the
status of a person, the speaker’s identification could be regarded as working to cancel
the speaker’s own personhood. In the second way of reading the line, despite the attempt
to personify silence, the speaker rather depersonalizes the self to the point of
obliteration. Or, finally, like the other two lines that must be read in contradictory
ways, this one invites not a double reading but, more specifically, two readings that
contend with each other, enacting at the level of the individual line the conflict
registered in the poem and, more generally, in the fascicle as a whole.
from Choosing Not Choosing: Dickinson’s
Fascicles. Copyright ? 1992 by The University of Chicago
In the extraordinary "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,"
written, according to Franklin’s dating, in 1862, she describes figuratively the terror
she had experienced, and its explosive effect on her, in terms of a confrontation with
existential dread. Forced to look life’s abyss "squarely in the face"–as she
says in a later companion poem, "I never hear that one is dead" (no. 1324; P,
915)–she felt her world split apart, leaving her "Wrecked, solitary here," the
numb survivor of some kind of shattering internal cataclysm which she compares to madness,
death, and loss.
From My Life a Loaded Gun: Dickinson, Plath, Rich, and Female Creativity.
Copyright ? 1986 by Paula Bennett. Reprinted with the permission of the author.
In a series of poems beginning in the early 1860s, Dickinson describes what might best
be called her fall from metaphysical grace and the epistemological impact this event had
upon her. In these poems, Dickinson’s confrontation with the abyss becomes the central
metaphor for her vision of a world from which transcendent meaning has been withdrawn and
in which, therefore, the speaker is free to reach any conclusion she wishes or, indeed, to
reach no conclusion at all.
‘I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,’ c. 1862, is one such poem. On the surface, this
poem is about death or, possibly, madness. But, finally, effectively, if it is ‘about’
anything, it is about dread. In it, to use Miller’s words, Dickinson does not reorder
‘what formerly appeared to be conclusively known.’ She tells what it feels like
to realize that nothing can be known at all. . . .
As in the surrealist paintings of de Chirico and Magritte, outsize ‘humanistic’ detail
functions in this poem to evoke all the terror that the isolated individual feels when
confronting nothingness–the abyss. In the poem’s otherwise emptied-out landscape, ‘the
Heavens’ become a ‘Bell,’ ‘Being’ an ‘Ear.’ Whether it is death or insanity that opens up
this vision to her, what the speaker realizes is that she is utterly alone and totally
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