Breaking Through (I felt a Funeral, in my Brain)

The passage from one state of being to another is an intrinsic function catalyzing the cycle of life. Emily Dickinson successfully illustrates this movement between states of being in her poem, “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain”, taking the concepts of death, life and being beyond the limits of physicality (955). A first person speaker discusses the procession of a figurative funeral, moving in stages from an internal ceremony to the heavens and then back down. Initial interpretations of the finale may leave one pondering the speaker’s move towards insanity or even death, but a closer look at Dickinson’s crafted ambiguity provides ample evidence for alternate interpretations. Dickinson employs sensory and allegorical diction to illustrate the speaker’s journey from the physical to the spiritual, meanwhile revealing the concept that life exists in parallel worlds of perception that can only be seen in transformation.

As the seat of sensory interpretation and assimilation, the platform of the brain provides both an intimate asylum for the speaker’s soliloquy and obvious entry into an allegorical world. The journey begins with a metaphorical procession of a funeral from within the speaker’s brain. Representative of passage, the poem’s presentation as a funeral provides readers with a stable construct before moving to explore abstract transformation. Funerals are meant to provide a service for recognizing the departed. This recognition is sometimes essential to moving forward or letting go, and for the speaker this process of acknowledgement happens within. “Mourners” tread “to and fro”, and the speaker feels “Sense” breaking through (lines 2-4). Sense is the vehicle for perception, and the capitalized use of “Sense” here gives the abstraction authority. Capitalization is usually reserved for proper nouns, including entities, and Dickinson’s use of the elevated form of Sense suggests a higher perception such as the sixth sense or the third eye. This breakthrough of an elevated sense imparts a feeling of leaving the body by breaking through its barrier and underscores the speaker’s impending transcendence.

The speaker can escape physical distraction only after a precise procedure of rhythm, which Dickinson exemplifies through her cadence. There is a deliberate “treading, treading” that causes Sense to begin breaking through, and as the “Service, like a Drum” commences, the speaker experiences a rhythmic “beating-beating” until she thinks her “Mind [is] going numb” (lines 6-8). With lyrical word choice and repetition, Dickinson extends a feeling of trance to the reader through the speaker’s experience.

In a psychology journal, Timothy Thomason addresses altered states of consciousness, stating that “many indigenous cultures have made use of repetitive drumming [and] chanting … to become absorbed and to enter into trance” (Thomason).  Studies have shown that rhythmic drumming and brainwave frequencies are linked and one study has even demonstrated that a change in a rhythm’s frequency can change brainwaves (Krippner & Villoldo). Indeed, this technique has been used in hypnosis and healing practices; Native American religious ceremonies exploited drumming patterns to achieve heightened sensitivity to the spiritual world. Thomason further explains that for ritual participants, “the rhythm of the drum takes them on a journey … and the shaman ‘rides’ the spirit horse into the spirit realm”.

As the rhythm induces a spiritual sensitivity and the speaker prepares for her journey, physical presence must be reduced. The rhythmic beating offers parallel interpretation through its analogy to the speaker’s last vestige of physical awareness. Readers are meant to experience the most essential function of the human body, the pulse. This beating pulse is the single most distinguishing sign between life and death. With a focus on the beat, it is also speculated that “drumming facilitates altered states by focusing attention and drowning out distracting stimuli” (Walsh). Throughout the process, the environment is absent of description and readers are brought into the speaker’s internal experience by feeling her pulse with her. She is alive and conscious, but is now reduced to the most focused, basic level of physical being in preparation for her voyage. Thus, Dickinson’s beating rhythm has significance both as a mechanism to minimize the context of physical reality to only an internalized pulsing sensation that offers a level of intended ambiguity, and to bring that pulse to transcendence.

The vehicle for transcendence is realized in the third stanza as the speaker makes the cross over from physical to spiritual. Once the speaker’s physical senses have been numbed by the beating, she hears “them lift a Box / And creak across [her] Soul” (9-10). The Box, capitalized for importance, is representative of the theoretical Funeral’s coffin – that which contains the very focus of the procession. It can be assumed that the Box contains an article of great importance to the speaker, i.e. the speaker’s cradle of “Sense” (4). Carried across the “Soul” by “Boots of Lead”, the speaker’s sense of awareness crosses over and enters the spirit realm, where the confines of the box are then removed and “Space” begins to “toll” (9-12).

Dickinson’s careful diction continues, noting that “Space- began to toll, / As all the Heavens were a Bell”, and it is this subconscious reference to the legendary 1624 poem “For whom the Bell Tolls” by John Donne that brings to mind the preeminence and meaning of the Bell. The conventional use of tolling is done through a slow and regularly repeated sounding, especially for the announcement of a “death” in the context of a Funeral. Donne’s poem presents the shared nature of human affliction, and when the Bell tolls, representing an announcement of death, it tolls for everyone. In Dickinson’s poem, Space, that which contains all of material existence without limit, tolls or summons a congregation. But the separating distinction between the speaker and the Being that is receptive to the Heavens shows the speaker’s ongoing sense of disconnection from others, especially the divine.

There is an undertone of pain in the poem, suggesting the speaker’s aversion to society. Many critics have supported the scenario of the speaker’s death by interpreting Dickinson’s words as symbols of pain thus motive for death. Though not explicitly cited as pain, the treading is said to represent the carelessness of other people who walk all over the speaker and the beating is seen as lethal blows of society’s treatment towards her. Further, the Boots of Lead are theorized as the heavy steps they impose upon her. The argument for insanity, however, uses the same interpretations to support its claim of the speaker’s move towards insanity, demonstrating the world’s ability to drive the speaker mad.  Lilia Melani explains that the “funeral marks the passage from one state to another (life to death), a parallel to the speaker’s passing from one stage to another (sanity to insanity)” (Melani). While the poem is indeed about passage, the context of the passage is an allegory and is crafted in such a way as to allow deeper enlightenment. There is a unity to all ideas, and the question of insanity can indeed be enveloped by the assertion of transformation, particularly transcendence. It is the daily life here in the physical world that harbors the true insanity- absent of absolute sense and judgment. True sanity is divine.  The practice of transcendence is instigated in order to deal with an unsaid pain, as the subject forcibly enters the spirit realm to find something beyond life’s dismaying disorder.

Readers can envision the speaker and her companion Silence shipwrecked upon the shore of a new world, as strange visitors. Witnessing the vast unity of Heaven, the speaker relays that “all the Heavens were a bell, / And Being but an Ear” (13-14). However, this expressed covenant between the heavens and Being is not extended to the speaker, as she continues “And I, and Silence, some strange Race, / Wrecked, solitary, here-” (15-16). The use of the word “wrecked” brings to mind the image of being “shipwrecked”, which is reasonably one of the earliest uses of the term. Automobiles did not become available for public use in America until the 1870’s- a decade after the estimated conception of Dickinson’s poem (“Race”). Both Dickinson and her influence John Keats use the ocean to represent the boundary of life, and crossing it would be attributed to entering another realm outside of our initial perceptions.  It is obvious that the speaker is out of place. She is wrecked and therefore must not have been led by a proper navigator, unlike a true heavenly being whom arrives upon the heavens through natural order. The Heavens are reserved for those beings that the Bell tolls for. There is no justification or console for the living, Earthly beings that do not belong in the Heavens, for living in such a state of unnatural consciousness is solitary. The speaker is not ready for death and does not belong in the Heavens because she has not died, and thus she cannot stay.

The mental funeral in the poem does not necessitate physical death. Primarily, it is in the brain, thus establishing the experience as an allegorical one. Additionally, the speaker says the “same Boots of Lead, again” as she describes the crossing of the soul. While death is final, transcendence can be experienced limitlessly if the speaker feels so inclined. In other words, you can only die once, but conversely having an out of body experience can be done “again”; the Native Americans did it multiple times, especially in times of distress. This interpretation of the speaker’s journey as one happening by process “again” relies on the carefully chosen diction that Dickinson employs, and further calls upon the sensory movement of treading “to and fro” or back and forth, an alluding allegory to entering the spirit realm and returning.

Just before snapping back to reality, the speaker undergoes an overwhelming epiphany, or enlightenment. When a “Plank in Reason” breaks, she begins to fall and encounters a series of worlds. The plank that breaks occurs while the speaker is in the Heavens and it is what sends her back. This suggests that her transcendent elevation is supported or bridged by her metaphorical breakthrough of Sense. As successfully described by one analyst, “In the context, the plank suggests a means of passage over a chasm” (Joly). She is supported just long enough to realize that she did not belong “Wrecked, solitary” in the Heavens (16). The goal of meditation-dervied transcendence is enlightenment; however, the universal vision of an idea is most clearly available only when in the state of transformation. Coming out of transcendence, the speaker perceives the approaching world in great detail, much like an epiphany, and it is in this moment of enlightenment that all the layers of the perceived world become revealed. Transformation is enlightenment and it won’t be until the speaker’s ultimate transformation, death, that she will find unity, no longer perceived as a strange race, and fully perceive the Heavens as part of the Ear, or Being.

There are indeed different interpretations, and that is the point: to not look at an idea from a single perspective only. Whether differentiating sanity and insanity, life and death, or physical to transcendence, there is a process happening and that process can be applied to perceive different ideas. We are perhaps not meant to “choose” a singular perception, for all the “variations” of a word’s meaning and thus the meaning of the poem are intended to demonstrate the essential unity of altered perceptions while maintaining their perceived distinctions. There exist concepts which manifest themselves into varying forms of experience, thus one can experience the properties of one manifestation and recognize its parallel purpose elsewhere. The speaker can experience a transformation and the very procedures can consequently expose properties of transformation in all its forms, whether from sanity to insanity or vice versa, life to death, or physical to spiritual. Ideas can have multiple meanings that are equally valid within a larger realm of understanding- each representing but a facet of a larger dimensional entity. The very question of death can mean both the ending of an experience while also suggesting the beginning of a change; in essence, it is a transformation.

While there are many possible variants, each a valid plank from within a perspective, in life there is a certain reality that overpowers other possibilities, and considering the first person context, Dickinson’s allegorical diction and crafted ambiguity, the most sensible conclusion is the message of transformation. The speaker successfully travels once again and reaches the other side.  Each trip is anew, for once back in the physical the mind cannot contain the vastly encompassing eminence of the Heavens. Here in the physical, we do not “know” for we are not capable of omniscience. Thus, after experiencing the plunge from the Heavens, when the speaker ends her experience by saying that she “Finished knowing, then-”, she has simply returned to the Earthly world, and the insanity of humanity (20).

Beyond one’s preferred interpretation, it can be agreed that Dickinson offers readers the process for understanding transformation from numerous perspectives. Dickinson does not choose how the reader will interpret her words and instead provides the tools for multiple understandings of passage. While the underlying message is that of the all-encompassing concept of transformation, the speaker’s out of body experience does invoke an evocative image of the ultimate idea of transformation, death, and that is the poet’s very purpose. Dickinson allows the capacity for parallel interpretations to transform our very understanding of passage into that of simply an altered state of being.


Works Cited

Capital Times Newspaper. Race of first steam buggies to Madison for prize is recounted. Madison, 26 May 1921. Document.

Dickinson, Emily. “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain.” Literature: Craft and Voice. Ed. Nicholas Delbanco and Alan Cheuse. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012. 955. Print.

Joly, Ralph Robert. “Poems: Third Series; The Poems of Emily Dickinson; Poem 280.” January 2002. Literary Reference Center Plus. Document.

Melani, Lilia. Emily Dickinson: The Inner World n.d. Web.

Stanley Krippner, Alberto Villoldo. Healing states. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987. Print.

Thomason, Timothy. “The Role of Altered States of Consciousness in Native American Healing.” Journal of Rural Community Psychology (Vol E13 No 1). Document.

R. Walsh “Shamanism and healing”. In B. Scotton, A. Chinen, & J. Battista (Eds.) Textbook of transpersonal psychiatry and psychology (pp. 96-103). New York: BasicBooks.


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