280 (I felt a Funeral, in my Brain)

James R. Guthrie: On 280 ("I felt a Funeral, in my Brain")

In the first three stanzas Dickinson carefully erects a plausible physical setting, which she then demolishes in the last two stanzas. The poem itself functions as a house with a "cellar" in which the narrator listens to the mourners carrying a coffin, perhaps her own, across the floor "above" her head; then, in the fourth stanza, the word "here" suddenly becomes problematic, immediately before the narrator drops, first, through the cellar floor, then through her own grave, and then through the last line of the poem--multiple levels of reality or "World[s]" that her body and consciousness pierce, at every "Plunge." The "here" at the end of the poem, or the point of view from which the narrator describes the action, is finally a very different "here" from that in the fourth stanza, the place where the speaker stands as she listens to the heavens tolling like an immense bell. Because the poem replicates the disappearance or appropriation of a physical space, it can inspire in readers a sensation of bodily and intellectual disorientation that may begin to approximate Dickinson's own confusion as she made her way around the Dickinson household. Furthermore, the narrator's "unconsciousness" resulting from her "fall" in the poem's last line becomes a metaphor not only for the cessation of consciousness that is death but for the soul shut out of heaven, condemned to pass from world to world, existence to existence, without ever achieving the physical stability which is analogous to spiritual salvation.

From Emily Dickinson’s Vision: Illness and Identity in Her Poetry. (University Press of Florida, 1998.) Copyright © 1998 by the Board of Regents of the State of Florida.

Karen Ford: On 280 ("I felt a Funeral, in my Brain")

The relationship between figurative excess and endings that lack closure suggests why so many of Dickinson's poems were originally published with their difficult endings deleted (or not selected for publication at all until they were published in the complete, variorum edition in 1955). "[I felt a Funeral, in my Brain]" (P 280) was typically printed without its last stanza:

[. . . .]

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

Yet, if we recognize the final stanza as a product of figurative escalations that are excessive rather than standard, we begin to understand its place in the poem.

"[I felt a Funeral--in my Brain]" begins, as so many of the poems do, with an assertion whose stability sounds unquestionable. Despite its semantic oddness, the first line is delivered with rhetorical assurance that temporarily contains its volatile subject matter. The sense of containment is not merely a product of orderly syntax and confident tone, however; it also derives from the claustrophobic setting of the funeral. Though the feeling of a funeral occurs in the speaker's brain, the analogy suggests premature burial. The mental state the speaker describes is not merely like a funeral in her brain, it is like being buried alive: the heightened awareness of sounds (treading, beating, creaking, tolling) and the sense of enclosure ("in my Brain," they all were seated," "a Box") combine with other evidence in the poem to suggest that the mourners are conducting a funeral service for a speaker who is not yet dead ("My Mind was going numb," "creak across my Soul").

The mental state described here begins as a numbing, monotonous, claustrophobic feeling but proceeds to its opposite. If the beginning of the poem figures extreme interiority, the ending of the poem depicts an even more disturbing exteriority whose boundlessness is finally indescribable. The "Plank in Reason" that breaks in the final stanza is anticipated in the shift from interior to exterior space, as though the walls, floor, and ceiling of the room (or the sides, lid, and bottom of the coffin), all made of planks, suddenly disappear, plunging the speaker into limitless and terrifying space.

The figurative path to the complete loss of reason, and its attendant spatial dissolution, is difficult to follow. Comparison with the more logical sequence of a similar poem offers an instructive contrast. "[I felt a Cleaving in my Mind]" (P 937) employs a metaphor that describes exactly what "[I felt a Funeral, in my Brain]" enacts (that is, poem 937 says what poem 280 does):

I felt a Cleaving in my Mind-- As if my Brain had split-- I tried to match it--Seam by Seam— But could not make them fit.

The thought behind, I strove to join  Unto the thought before-- But Sequence ravelled out of Sound  Like Balls--upon a Floor.

The word "cleaving" may abbreviate the contradictions of "[I felt a Funeral, in my Brain]" between the description of the mental state as claustrophobic (cleaving together) and boundless (cleaving apart). The second line establishes that the sensation being described here is some sort of mental falling apart. The orderly progression of thoughts, compared to a string of yarn or thread, cannot be knit or sewn together into a coherent sequence. On the contrary, the balls of yarn (perhaps a graphic corollary for the brain with its bundled folds and convolutions) unravel when they roll to the floor.

Not only does this poem describe the movement toward disintegration that poem 280 undertakes to depict, but it also refers to the difficulty of such representation: "But Sequence ravelled out of Sound" is not just a description of mental undoing, it is an account of linguistic failure. The sequence of mental events that leads to the disruption of rationality (another sequence) quickly moves out of verbal reach (out of sound). But that one phrase is the only hint that "[I felt a Cleaving in my Mind] " cannot fully represent its subject. Its metaphors, strings of yarn torn from some knitted whole and balls of yarn unraveling on the floor, are adequate to the task they are given. The consistency of these analogies and the brevity of the poem are indices of a certain conceptual neatness.

The difference in "[I felt a Funeral, in my Brain]" is not that its metaphors are inadequate but that its subject is much more complicated and elusive than the subject of poem 937. Here the figurative increases must be followed with decreasing certainty. In stanza one, the speaker's mental state is compared to a funeral and is characterized by morbidity, monotony, and repetitiveness so oppressive that "it seemed / That Sense was breaking through." In the second stanza, the monotony and repetitiveness continue, but the sensation of motion (in the treading feet) decreases as "they all were seated." The sound of a drum replaces the treading with even more monotonous and repetitive beating until the speaker feels her mind "going numb." When, in stanza three, she "hears" the creaking of the pall bearers' steps carrying the coffin "across [her] Soul," something changes. Perhaps the movement from the interior space of the funeral service to the exterior space of the graveyard precipitates the drastic figurative change when "Space--began to toll." The tolling of a church bell to signal the burial of the dead is consistent with the metaphor thus far, as the monotony of a ringing bell is akin to the insistent treading, beating, and creaking that precede it. What is not consistent, however, is that all of "Space" is tolling, not just a church bell. At the end of stanza three, then, the setting of the initial figure is abandoned, and only the maddening sound persists to carry the metaphors of the poem forward.

Vast, undifferentiated, resounding space is the setting of lines 11 through 14, a setting, if it can any longer be termed such, of pure sound. Space tolls as [if] "all the Heavens were a Bell" and "Being, but an Ear." Whatever the speaker means by "Being," she is not included in that category, for she and "Silence, some strange Race" are [ship]wrecked in this world of sound, like two lost mariners washed up in some alien and, we discover, hostile land. "Wrecked, solitary, here" suggests shipwreck and strange lands, but we must remember that the speaker and her companion, Silence, are disembodied; and even Being, the native race of this aural world, is "but an Ear." It is worth reflecting, before proceeding to the final stanza, that the speaker has moved from the claustrophobic environment of the funeral (perhaps of the coffin) to the boundless environment of pure sound; worse, the mind-numbing experience of the beginning of the poem has reduced her to silence, rendering her strange and solitary in this world of sound. It is this strangeness and isolation that she amplifies in the final stanza.

The last stanza restores the spatial setting, at least to the limited extent that one prop, a plank, from the material world is poised precariously over this aural abyss. Balancing on the imagery of the preceding stanza, the speaker seems to be walking the plank of a [pirate] ship, the victim of a nautical execution that recurs to the funeral motif. When the "Plank in Reason" breaks, however, she plunges into space again, rather than into the sea, and thus descends through the vast emptiness that here seems to be outer space: she "hit[s] a World, at every plunge."

This dizzying perspective of the speaker tumbling through space yet colliding with whole worlds (then bouncing off of them and continuing her fall?) is difficult to picture, which is precisely the point of such excessive imagery. Once again the admission of failure and the end of the poem coincide: "then," like "now" in "[Grief is a Mouse]," points to a moment when the poem's formulations recognize defeat. "How then know" and "Finished knowing--then" bring their respective poem's processes of knowing to an end, though the way that "—then--" in this poem is suspended between two dashes suggests both ending and continuation: at that moment [then], I finished knowing; and, I finished knowing, [and]. . . then [I can't convey what happened then]. In either case, what the poem is able to do with words has ended.

From Gender and The Poetics of Excess: Moments of Brocade. Copyright © 1997 by the University Press of Mississippi. Reprinted with the permission of the author.

Cynthia Griffin Wolff: On 280 ("I felt a Funeral, in my Brain")

At the end of "I heard a Fly buzz—" the speaker has been winnowed by death, and the integral self is scattered outward and destroyed by dispersal; that poem concludes when vision has failed. Another of the proleptic poems, "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain," begins after the power of seeing has been lost altogether.

[. . . .]

Here the process of annihilation is inverted: the fragile membrane that separates "self" from "outer world" has been ruptured, and the surroundings flood into consciousness with a force like that of sexual violation. There are no distinct "others" (not even the anonymous "Eyes" that had indicated mourners to witness death in "I heard a Fly buzz--"), nothing but a lone speaker whose mind has been filled with a jumble of sensations, as if it were no more than an empty vessel. Throughout, the speaker seems to strain after coherence, and the poem's compelling attraction derives in large measure from its ability to lure the reader into joining the speaker in this pursuit. It even seems apparent that Dickinson intends this prolonged and unresolved tension: at the beginning we are given to hope that "Sense was breaking through," and this expectation is not undercut until the end, when "a Plank in Reason, broke." The poem taunts with its invitations and frustrations, and ultimately forces us to ask what we know, how we know--whether "life" and "death" are susceptible to understanding.

The poem is taut in its movement, for there are at least three forces at work to set the verse in motion and structure its course. The one that is clearest and most available to the reader is the step-by-step scenario of "Funeral," a familiar ritual whose configuration has been decreed by society. All Congregationalist funerals followed very much the same outline, and few readers will have difficulty in recognizing it: the mourners who pay their respects, the church service, the removal to graveyard and burial, the tolling of the bell as friends and family leave to resume the pursuits of the living. What makes this poem startling, of course, is that the ritual observed in real life by the mourners is reported here by the deceased itself.

Although it is an impossible feat, seeing one's own funeral and reading one's own obituary are among the most common fantasies of our culture, and they have become stock components of our literature as well. Congregationalist ministers enjoined the members of their congregations to reflect upon the moment of death as a spiritual exercise, to imagine how family and friends would feel (would they be confident of meeting the deceased in Heaven, or would they fear an eternity of separation because the life of the deceased had given no signs of saving Grace?). Mark Twain played humorously with the remnants of this religious notion in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; and in the twentieth century Thornton Wilder's Our Town dramatized the pathos in life by using a proleptic narrator who sees, among other things, her own funeral. The premise behind all of these is the same: from the absolute vantage of death, we will be able to ascertain what is really important in life--what events were significant, what values are enduring. At last, perhaps, we can know what people really thought of us or how God will ultimately judge us: seeing our funeral might allow us finally to understand our "self." This poem is grotesque, and deliberately so, principally because Dickinson's rendition of the convention turns all the usual advantages of these literary devices against themselves. No information about life or self can be gathered from this funeral. The mourners are silent, muffled figures whose movement, though constant, "treading--treading," leads only "to and fro"; the funeral service has no sound but the relentless "beating--beating" of the unmusical, toneless "Drum." One horror, then, is the hollow abstraction of this retrospective view. Instead of confirming the importance of certain particular events and values, instead of revealing the true feelings of people for a specific soul now deceased, it suggests that nothing and no one can have enduring value. The only lasting value is the unvarying ritual itself as ritual, and both the reader and the proleptic Voice cling to the formal, abstract structure of the ceremony that alone seems capable of imposing order upon death.

In ironic juxtaposition to the regularized, conventional progress of the funeral rites is the second force in the poem, the disruptive capacity of death--a jumbling together of all categories that apply to the speaker and serve to define identity. The funeral is "felt"; the "Mind" becomes "numb"; the coffin is lifted "across" the soul; being is reduced to "an Ear," as speaker and "Silence" become members of the same "strange Race" of creatures. The speaker's plight in the penultimate stanza of the poem recollects Dickinson's assertion that Immortality is "the Flood subject," for even the possibility of consciousness after death becomes confused and terrifying when both speaker and "Silence" find themselves "Wrecked, solitary, here." The "Plank" of reason in the last stanza may seem cryptic to a modern reader; however, a contemporary reader might well have recognized Dickinson's allusion to the iconography of conservative, mid-nineteenth-century religious culture. In Holmes and Barber's Religious Allegories(1848), there is an emblem called "WALKING BY FAITH" (modeled on the passage from II Corinthians 5:7, "For we walk by faith, not by sight"). It depicts a man "just starting from what appears to be solid ground, to walk upon a narrow plank [with the word 'FAITH' imprinted on it], stretched across a deep "gulph" and which ends nobody knows whither." On one side is life, and on the other is Heaven; only the plank of "FAITH" can provide transport--so this emblem asserts. Yet having renounced faith, Dickinson substitutes a "Plank in Reason," which breaks because no rational explanation can be adequate to bridge the abyss between earth and Heaven. The poem concludes with a fall that is an apotheosis of confusion. Perhaps it recapitulates that first fall into Hell (the poem's recourse to the emblem tradition supports this inference); perhaps it is the horror of a residual self, dropping endlessly through infinite, interstellar space ("And hit a World, at every plunge," seems to confirm this reading)--no Heaven or Hell, just unbounded and eternal loneliness; perhaps it is a surrealistic fall into some dark, endless, undefined interior of being (the initial placing of the funeral "in my Brain" encourages this inference). And of all these possibilities, the first is perhaps the most comforting because the resort to a familiar mythic world makes it at least partially comprehensible.

This is an extraordinarily self-conscious piece of verse, with Dickinson making both artifice and the relationship between art and life explicit concerns of the poem. Thus two forces, the familiar order of ritual and the expanding disjunction of categories that are used to define the speaker's existence, function to balance each other in some measure. Without the systematic, articulated ceremony of the funeral rites, a reader might have no idea what the speaker was describing, and the poem would lack coherence and unity; without the steady distortion of the terms by which self is defined, the reader could not apprehend the full experiential anguish of the process. Yet they work together in one respect: each in its own way tacitly argues that human beings must create their own order, for we live in a universe that has an imperative only for annihilation.

The ultimate horror is this: that the inescapable activity of destruction derives much of its fearsomeness from being tied to the laws of unvarying and intractable movement--time, the third major force at work in the poem. And whereas the sequential order of the funeral and the violating disorder of disrupted categories are conveyed through diction, time's indifferent ruthlessness is rendered less directly--through absences and through syntactic and rhythmic structures. Thus the reader feels the force of time in the poem more keenly than he or she apprehends it intellectually.

We feel it first because of the oddities in the account of the funeral. In the latter-day Puritan culture of Emily Dickinson's Amherst, funeral services were forms of proto-narrative: since the ceremony was stylized, different portions of it were not of equal importance, even though they might take equal amounts of time to enact. The "narrative structure" of the funeral rite was dominated by the sermon, which summed up the life of the deceased and served as the centerpiece of the ritual: everything that preceded it was merely anticipatory; everything that followed was anticlimactic. A funeral told the tale of transition from earth to afterlife, and its sermon was the dead person’s final "earthly appearance." Drawing upon a tradition of many centuries, the minister would begin with a suitable text from the Bible; he would then select the most significant events in the dead person's life in order to reveal his or her essential Christian nature; finally, he would draw a conclusion concerning the spiritual state of the newly deceased--sometimes even estimating the chances for salvation. Although soul had been severed from body at death, society's formal recognition of this event did not occur until this moment, when the body lying in the casket was explicitly distinguished from both the mortal being who had lived on earth and its soul, now departed. The invariable chant at the graveside--"ashes to ashes, dust to dust"--gives articulation to this recognition. Pivoting upon the sermon, then, the funeral service balanced hope against apparent loss: all that was essential to the nature of he departed had moved to an afterlife, saved (it was hoped) by the merciful sacrifice of Christ; the mortal remains were thus no occasion for grief, for the "fall" into the grave could be canceled by the "rise" into Heaven. Funeral sermons were so important as exemplary renditions of Christian character and explicit instances of God's mercy that they were very often printed and published, to be read devotionally. Many of Heman Humphrey's and a number of Edward Hitchcock's still survive in this form.

Any accurate recapitulation of the funeral "narrative," then, would be shaped to mirror this structure, and such a recapitulation would of course reflect the crucial significance of the sermon as final exegesis of identity. A merely sequential movement of the verse would have to be modulated to highlight the central importance of this moment. However, such is not the case n Dickinson's version here. There is no narrative center to this poem. Quite the opposite: there is a curiously detached, even clinical tone, an apparent determination to tell only "what happened" in orderly, impartial, and merely temporal sequence, a fading out at the end into terrible uncertainty. Thus, although Dickinson employs the successive stages in the funeral ritual to establish a recognizable sequence in the poem, she does not "shape" this temporal arrangement to make the sermon take precedence: the "Service" is but one event among many, each of apparently equal consequence. This is a brutal violation, this flattening of the narrative so that temporal sequence provides the only order; and it accomplishes one part of its effect merely through a felt absence. There is no sermon in this service. The proleptic speaker's individual character does not dominate even her own funeral.

The second way a reader feels time's force in this poem, however, is probably its prominent feature: immutable clock-time conveyed grammatically through the driving, implacable forward movement of parataxis. Events occurring without pause, without yielding insight, without any logical relationship to one another, without any ordering of importance: life is swept remorselessly along in the swift current of time, swept over the edge, perhaps to come to rest in some unfathomed end, perhaps merely to fall forever. There is virtually no syntactic subordination in this poem; the few instances are either hypothetical ("As [if]") or, more commonly, temporal ("till ... when ... till ... then ... then ... then"). The insistent beat of "when" and "then" merely reinforces the drumming tattoo of ticking time, which becomes more insistent with each stanza and climaxes with the paratactic thumping of "And" that is concentrated in the fifth stanza ("And ... And ... And ... And") as the Voice recounts its final, undefined descent beyond understanding. It is thus that the reader is propelled forward by the driving force of time: urgent, impatient, uncaring. Here, the metrical dominance of "eights and sixes" hymnal cadence, serves as bitter irony--the hope offered by Christ utterly forsworn by the bleak vision of the verse; and probably Dickinson intended a trope for metrical foot in the image of "those same Boots of Lead, again"--death busy about his usual work of blight and annihilation.

The somber implication of paratactic movement is by no means confined to this one poem: it is rendered unmistakably (though unobtrusively) in "A Clock stopped--" by "Nods from the Gilded pointers--/ Nods from the Seconds slim--"; and the irony in that poem is that God is as completely entrapped by the inflexible nature of His invention as mankind is. Indeed, throughout Dickinson's work, the use of parataxis almost always signals the inexorable drive toward death.

From Emily Dickinson. Copyright © 1988 by Cynthia Griffin Wolff.

Paula Bennett: On 280 ("I felt a Funeral, in my Brain") (2)

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 free. There is neither a sustaining God nor a sustaining scaffold of meaning to support her. Like the trapdoor on a gallows or like the planks supporting a coffin until it is dropped into the grave, the 'bottom’ drops out of reality. For the speaker, anything is possible in a world that is fundamentally absurd--where you can drop 'down, and down' and 'hit a World, at every plunge.' As in 'Four Trees,' the only conclusion to this experience is the conclusion that not-knowing (not just death but the acceptance of ignorance) brings.

From Emily Dickinson, Woman Poet. Copyright © 1990 by Paula Bennet. Reprinted by permission of the author.

Paula Bennett: On 280 ("I felt a Funeral, in my Brain")

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.

Sharon Cameron: On 280 ("I felt a Funeral, in my Brain") (2)

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.

Sharon Cameron: On 280 ("I felt a Funeral, in my Brain")

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 out.

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.