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I felt a Funeral, in my Brain

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English Literature

Emily Dickinson's 'I felt a Funeral, in my Brain' (1861) uses an extended metaphor of death and funerals to convey the death of her sanity. Through the imagery of mourners and coffins, 'I felt a Funeral, in my Brain' explores death, suffering, and madness themes.

Written In

1861

Written By

Emily Dickinson

Form

Ballad

Structure

Five Stanzas

Meter

Common Meter

Rhyme Scheme

ABCB

Poetic Devices

Metaphor

Repetition

Enjambment

Caesuras

Dashes

Frequently noted imagery

Mourners

Coffins

Tone

Sad

Despondent

Passive

Key themes

Death

Madness

Meaning

The speaker is experiencing the death of her sanity, causing her both suffering and madness.

‘I felt a Funeral, in my Brain’: context

‘I felt a Funeral, in my Brain’ can be analysed in its biographical, historical, and literary context.

Biographical context

Emily Dickinson was born in 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts, in America. Many critics believe that Dickinson wrote 'I felt a Funeral, in my Brain' in 1861. Tuberculosis and typhus swept through Dickinson's social circle, leading to the deaths of her cousin Sophia Holland and friend Benjamin Franklin Newton by the time she wrote 'I felt a Funeral in my Brain'.

Historical context

Emily Dickinson grew up during the Second Great Awakening, a Protestant revival movement in America during the early nineteenth century. She grew up around this movement, as her family were Calvinists, and although she ultimately rejected religion, the effects of religion can still be seen in her poetry. In this poem, it is apparent when she references Christian heaven.

Calvinism

A denomination of Protestantism that follows the traditions set out by John Calvin

This form of Protestantism strongly focuses on the sovereignty of God and the Bible.

Literary context

American Romantics heavily influenced Emily Dickinson’s work – a literary movement that emphasised nature, the power of the universe, and individuality. This movement included writers such as Dickinson herself and Walt Whitman and Ralph Waldo Emerson. During this movement, Dickinson focused on exploring the power of the mind and took an interest in writing about individuality through this lens.

Emily Dickinson and Romanticism

Romanticism was a movement that originated in England during the early 1800s that emphasised the importance of individual experience and nature. When the movement reached America, figures such as Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson quickly adopted it. Dickinson used the themes of Romanticism to explore the individual interior experience (or the experience of the mind).

Dickinson was also raised in a religious household, and she frequently read the Common Book of Prayer. The influence of this literature can be seen in how she replicates some of its forms in her poetry.

Common Book of Prayer

The official prayer book of the Chuch of England

Emily Dickinson’s ‘I felt a Funeral, in my Brain’: poem

‘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 -’

‘I felt a Funeral, in my Brain’: summary

Let us examine the summary of ‘I felt a Funeral, in my Brain’.

Stanza one

The structure of the stanzas in this poem replicates the proceedings of a real funeral, therefore, the first stanza discusses the wake. This stanza concerns what is happening before the funeral starts.

Stanza two

The second stanza focuses on the service when the speaker’s funeral begins.

Stanza three

The third stanza takes place following the service and is the procession. The coffin is lifted and moved outside to where it will be buried. At the end of this stanza, the speaker mentions the funeral bell that will focus on stanza four.

Stanza four

The fourth stanza picks up immediately from the third and discusses the funeral toll. The bell's toll is maddening to the speaker and reduces her senses to just her hearing.

Stanza five

The final stanza focuses on the burial whereas the coffin is lowered into the grave, and the speaker’s sanity spirals away from her. The stanza finishes on a dash (-), suggesting that this experience will continue after the poem itself finishes.

‘I felt a Funeral, in my Brain’: structure

Each stanza contains four lines (quatrain) and is written in an ABCB rhyme scheme.

Rhyme and meter

The poem is written with an ABCB rhyme scheme. However, some of these are slant rhymes (similar words but do not rhyme identically). For example, ‘fro’ in the second line and ‘through’ in the fourth line are slant rhymes. Dickinson mixes slant and perfect rhymes to make the poem more irregular, reflecting the speaker's experience.

Slant rhymes

Two words that do not rhyme perfectly together.

The poet also uses the common metre (lines alternating between eight and six syllables and always written in an iambic pattern). Common metre is common in both Romantic poetry and Christian hymns, which both have influenced this poem. As hymns are typically sung at Christian funerals, Dickinson uses the metre to reference this.

Iambic meter

Lines of verse that consist of an unstressed syllable, followed by a stressed syllable.

Form

Dickinson uses a ballad form in this poem to tell a story about the death of the speaker’s sanity. Ballads were first popular in England in the fifteenth century and during the Romanticism movement (1800–1850), as they were able to tell longer narratives. Dickinson uses the form here similarly as the ballad tells a story.

Ballad

A poem narrates a story in short stanzas

Enjambment

Dickinson contrasts her use of dashes and caesuras by using enjambment (one line continuing into the other, with no punctuation breaks). By mixing these three devices, Dickinson creates an irregular structure to her poem that reflects the madness the speaker is experiencing.

Enjambment

The continuation of one line of poetry into the next line, without any pauses

'I felt a Funeral, in my Brain': literary devices

What literary devices are used in 'I felt a Funeral, in my Brain'?

Imagery

Imagery

Visually descriptive figurative language

As the poem is set at a funeral, Dickinson uses the imagery of the mourners throughout the piece. These figures usually represent sadness. However, here, the mourners are faceless beings that seem to torment the speaker. Their ‘treading – treading’ in ‘Boots of Lead’, creates the imagery of heaviness that weighs down the speaker as she loses her senses.

Dickinson also uses the imagery of a coffin to show the speaker’s mental state. In the poem, the coffin is referred to as a ‘Box’, which the mourners carry across her soul during the funeral procession. The poem never states what is in the coffin. It represents the isolation and confusion the speaker is experiencing as everyone at the funeral knows what is inside, except her (and the reader).

Metaphor

Metaphor

A figure of speech where a word/phrase is applied to an object despite it not being literally possible

In this poem, the ‘funeral’ is a metaphor for the speaker’s loss of self and sanity. The metaphor is shown in the first line, ‘I felt a Funeral, in my Brain’, which shows that the poem's events take place within the speaker’s mind. This means that a funeral can not be real and so it is a metaphor for the death of the mind, (or the death of self) that the speaker is experiencing.

Repetition

Repetition

The action of repeating a sound, word, or phrase throughout a text

Dickinson frequently uses repetition in the poem to signify time becoming slower as the funeral progresses. The poet repeats the verbs ‘treading’ and ‘beating’; this slows the poem's rhythm down and reflects how life feels slower for the speaker since the funeral began. These repeated verbs in the continuous present tense also evoke the idea of a sound (the treading of feet or a beating heart) repeating itself endlessly – driving the speaker mad.

Continuous present tense

These are ‘-ing’ verbs that are happening now in the present and are still ongoing. Examples include ‘I am running’ or 'I am swimming'.

There is a third example of repetition in the final stanza when the word ‘down’ is repeated. This shows the speaker will continue to fall even after the poem finishes, meaning that this experience will go on forever for her.

Capitalisation

Capitalisation is a key feature of many of Dickinson’s poems, as the poet chooses to capitalise words that are not proper nouns. In this poem, it is seen in words such as ‘Funeral’, ‘Brain’, ‘Sense’ and ‘Reason’. It is done to emphasise the importance of these words in the poem and show that they are significant.

Dashes

One of the most recognisable elements of Dickinson’s poetry is her use of dashes. They are used to create pauses in the lines (caesuras). The pauses represent the breaks that are forming in the speaker’s mind, as her mind becomes fractured, so do the lines of the poem.

Caesura

A break between lines of a metrical foot

The final dash of the poem occurs on the last line, ‘- then -’. The final dash shows that the madness the speaker is experiencing will continue following the poem's end. It also creates a sense of suspense.

Speaker

The speaker in this poem is experiencing the loss of her sanity. The poet uses dashes, metaphors, imagery, and first-person narration to reflect the speaker's feelings as this occurs to her.

Tone

The speaker’s tone in this poem is passive yet confused. The speaker does not completely understand what is going on around her as she loses her senses throughout the poem. However, the ending suggests that she quickly accepts her fate. There is also a sad tone in the poem, as the speaker mourns the death of her sanity.

‘I felt a Funeral, in my Brain’: meaning

This poem is about how the speaker imagines losing her sense of self and sanity. Here, the' Funeral' is not for her physical body but instead for her mind. As the dashes in the poem increase, so does the speaker's fear and confusion surrounding what she is experiencing. This is compounded by the 'treading' around her, creating an annoying beat throughout the poem.

The speaker also describes the chaotic moments before she ‘Finished knowing’. However, the poem ends with a dash (-), showing that this new existence will not end. Dickinson uses these devices to convey the meaning of the poem, as they show how each of the speaker's senses slowly falls away as her sanity dies.

‘I felt a Funeral, in my Brain’: themes

What are the major themes explored in ‘I felt a Funeral, in my Brain’?

Death

‘I felt a Funeral, in my Brain’ is a poem that explores the imagined process of dying in real-time. The theme of death is clear throughout this poem, as Dickinson uses imagery associated with death. The death that the speaker is experiencing is physical but also mental. The speaker is witnessing the death of her sanity, stating that a

‘Plank in Reason, broke-’.

Madness

Madness is key throughout the poem as the speaker slowly experiences the death of her mind. The ‘funeral’ at the poem's centre is for her sanity. The speaker’s mental ‘Sense’ is slowly being worn down throughout the poem by the ‘Mourners’. As the speaker's mind slowly dies, dashes are seen more frequently throughout the poem, as this reflects how her sanity is becoming more broken and disjointed during the funeral. This theme climaxes at the end of the poem when the ‘Plank in Reason’ breaks, and the speaker finds herself falling until she finishes knowing’. At this point in the poem, the speaker has fully lost her sanity, as she has lost her ability to reason or know things. The mind was crucial for American Romanticism, which stressed the importance of individual experience. This idea was adopted by Emily Dickinson, who focused this poem on the importance of the mind and how losing one's sanity can deeply negatively impact one.

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain - Key takeaways

  • 'I felt a Funeral, in my Brain' was written in 1861 by Emily Dickinson.
  • The poem was published posthumously in 1896.
  • This piece follows the speaker as she experiences the death of her mind.
  • 'I felt a Funeral, in my Brain' consists of five quatrains written in an ABCB rhyme scheme.
  • It features imagery of mourners and coffins
  • The poem explores themes of death and madness.

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain

‘I felt a Funeral, in my Brain’ was written in 1896. 

When the speaker states that there is a funeral in her brain, she means that she has lost her sanity. Here, the funeral functions as a metaphor for the death of the speaker’s mind. 

Dickinson focuses on a different kind of death in her poem, ‘I felt a Funeral, in my Brain’ as she writes about the death of the speaker’s mind rather than just her body. She also uses common imagery of death in this poem, such as the imagery of the proceedings of the funeral. 

The mood in ‘I felt a Funeral, in my Brain’ is sad, as the speaker is mourning the loss of her sanity. There is also a tone of confusion and passivity in the poem, as the speaker does not fully understand what is occurring around her, but accepts it anyway. 

Dickinson uses repetition in ‘I Felt a Funeral, in my Brain’ to slow the poem's pace down, so it reflects how time is slowing for the speaker. The repetition of auditory verbs shows how the repeated sounds are maddening to the speaker. Dickinson uses the final repetition of ‘down’ to show that this experience is still ongoing for the speaker. 

Final I felt a Funeral, in my Brain Quiz

Question

Who wrote, ‘I Felt a Funeral, in my Brain’?

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Answer

Emily Dickinson

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Question

When was ‘I Felt a Funeral, in my Brain’ written?

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Answer

1816

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Question

What form is ‘I Felt a Funeral, in my Brain’ written in? 


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Answer

‘I Felt a Funeral, in my Brain’ is written in the form of a ballad.

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Question

What metre does ‘I Felt a Funeral, in my Brain’ use? 


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Answer

‘I Felt a Funeral, in my Brain’ uses the common metre. 

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Question

Where else can the common metre be found?

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Answer

Christian Hymns

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Question

What rhyme scheme is used in ‘I Felt a Funeral, in my Brain’?


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Answer

‘I Felt a Funeral, in my Brain’ features an ABCB rhyme scheme.

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Question

How many stanzas are in ‘I Felt a Funeral, in my Brain’?

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Answer

5

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Question

 What do the stanzas represent in ‘I Felt a Funeral, in my Brain’?


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Answer

A funeral

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Question

What religious movement did Dickinson grow up in? 


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Answer

She grew up during the Second Great Awakening.

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Question

True or False - There are no caesuras in ‘I Felt a Funeral, in my Brain’


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Answer

False! There are caesuras in ‘I Felt a Funeral, in my Brain’.

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What literary movement influenced Dickinson?

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Answer

The Romanticism movement influence Dickinson.

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Question

What two pieces of imagery does Dickinson use?

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Answer

Coffin

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Question

True or False - The funeral in ‘I Felt a Funeral, in my Brain’ is a metaphor.

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Answer

True! The funeral in ‘I Felt a Funeral, in my Brain’ is a metaphor.

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Question

 Does Dickinson use capitalisation in ‘I Felt a Funeral, in my Brain’?

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Answer

Yes! Dickinson does use capitalisation in ‘I Felt a Funeral, in my Brain’. 

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Question

What is the tone of ‘I Felt a Funeral, in my Brain’?

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Answer

Passive

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Question

What is ‘I Felt a Funeral, in my Brain’ about?

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Answer

‘I Felt a Funeral, in my Brain’ is about the death of self - or how the speaker is losing her sanity.

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Question

What are two themes in ‘I Felt a Funeral, in my Brain’?

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Answer

Death 

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