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Self-destruction and Insanity in I Felt a Funeral, in My Brain

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The unconscious refers to experiences that are beyond one’s control and that occur without one being aware. Within those with mental illnesses, many people feel disconnected from themselves and begin to feel a deep sense of loneliness and anxiety. During one’s fall into madness, they quickly becomes overwhelmed by the irrationality of the unconscious. Similarly, the concept of the chaos of the unconscious and the horror of descending madness is prominent in the poem, I Felt a Funeral, in my Brain, by Emily Dickinson. The poem traces the speaker’s mind as the speaker experiences a metaphorical funeral for her sanity. At first, the speaker feels the weight and pain of her impending mental collapse. Shortly after the beginning of the funeral, the speaker becomes numb to the feelings of pain and terror. In the end, her last standing piece of normality and soundness breaks beneath her, releasing her into a new world of madness. Gothic literature in this time period focused on the supernatural, madness and death and became essential for showing people that there was a way to explore the dark and irrational. Dickinson highlights aspects of dark romanticism and gothic literature, including madness and hysteria. In the poem, I Felt a Funeral, in my Brain, Emily Dickinson follows the speaker’s plunge into madness and the terrors of mental destruction as reason turns to delusion, ultimately highlighting the loss of self that comes with mental insanity.

Dickinson uses a metaphor of physical mourners embodying the speaker’s impending collapse in the first two stanzas to illustrate the endless pain and suffering that comes with the boundless weight of impending mental collapse. In the second line of the first stanza, the speaker begins to set the scene of the physical funeral and describes the people within her mind: “And Mourners to and fro / Kept treading – treading – till it seemed”. The “Mourners” going back in forth in her brain show the physical weight the people, representing the pain that is weighing her down. The capitalization both personifies the illusion of the mourners in her mind and emphasizes how they are the only other substantial being within her imagination. The mourners also represent the events that bring on the speaker’s collapse. These events are continuous within the speaker’s mind, similar to how they are repeatedly “treading” to and fro within the stanza. Moreover, the repeating of treading further shows how unhappy she is and how she feels as though she is stuck in an endless cycle. The dashes between the words slow the pace and heighten the pain the speaker feels. Further in the poem, in the sixth line of the second stanza, the speaker begins to describe a metaphorical drum to emphasize the mental toll the service is taking on her sanity: “A Service, like a Drum – / Kept beating – beating – till I thought / My mind was going numb -”. The simile of the service being like a drum shows how there are no words or other sensations within her mental funeral, only the feelings of a repetitive drum. Continuing, similar to the tread of the mourners in the first stanza, the repeated beating of the drums conveys the sadness awake in her mind as she begins to feel that her mind is going numb. The word “Drum” is capitalized in order to personify it, showing its physical power and endless toll on her mental state. Within this stanza the word “mind” is changed from the previous use of the word brain, making it a more intellectual experience. The brain is visible and tangible, whereas the mind is the invisible and focuses on feeling, and imagination. Her mind going numb illustrates that she is numb to her feelings, her consciousness and ability to acknowledge herself and the outside world. In conclusion, the use of the physical mourners and the repetition helps to convey the boundless pain and suffering that results from the unmanageable weight of mental insanity.

Additionally, using the personification of silence in the fourth stanza, Dickinson emphasizes the feelings of alienation and detachment from oneself as the individual becomes numb to the feelings of grief and terror. At the beginning of the fourth stanza, the poem shifts and begins describing mental sensations over physical experiences as one’s body can no longer control its senses: “As all the Heavens were a Bell, / And Being, but an Ear”. In order to show her brain moving towards death, “Heavens” is capitalized to personify it, further demonstrating a sense of hysteria. Overwhelmed by her inescapable mental insanity, the speaker is reduced to nothing and becomes void of all “but an ear”. The word “being” describes a human being, the being, being only an ear shows how she becomes a passive receiver of noise, not being able to control what she hears, similar to how she is not able to control what happens to her sanity. In doing this, Dickinson effectively creates a sensation of panic and helplessness. The words “Bell” and “Ear” are capitalized to personify them. The capitalization of “Ear” suggests that she has become the ear and thus has no control over her senses. The “Bell” is personified as a separate being, calling to her, creating a more religious experience than earlier in the stanza. Continuing in the fourth stanza, the speaker begins to understand her isolation and feel the heavy burden of silence: “And I, and Silence, some strange Race, / Wrecked, solitary, here”. Silence is described as an empty feeling, where her mind is an empty world filled only by sound. The word “Silence” is capitalized because it is personified as a physical being that surrounds her and does not allow her to speak. The “strange race” exemplifies how she has alienated herself and she no longer feels human, she feels separated from any sense of normalcy that may have once existed. Her descent into irrationality separates her from others, making her a member of “some strange race.” Her alienation is indicated by the overwhelming silence. Her use of “wrecked” and “solitary” display how the speaker is aware of her own mental state and that she is alone and destroyed. In the end, the use of the personification of silence illustrates the feelings of isolation and detachment from oneself as one becomes paralyzed to the feelings around them.

Subsequently, Dickinson personifies a broken plank as her last fragment of rationality in the final stanza to display the destruction of sanity and stability that result as madness and terror usurp the individual. The speaker begins to describe her physical loss of sanity as she is released into the worlds of delirium and reads, “And then a Plank in Reason, broke, / And I dropped down, and down”. According to Dickinson’s lexicon, reason represents logic, rational thinking and mental construct. Reason holds the connotation of rationality and intelligence, so, when the plank, or the thing holding up her reason or sanity breaks in her mind, she loses her normality. By “dropping” down, the speaker emphasizes how this is a fall into oblivion and a loss of consciousness. Her dropping down displays her going further into isolation and the repetition of down explains how her fall is never ending. At the end of the poem, the speaker concludes her final jump into insanity, describes her new levels of subconscious thought and reveals, “And hit a world, at every plunge, / And Finished knowing – then”. Her hitting other worlds shows her coming into contact with other irrational worlds now that her world of reason or world of rationality is destroyed. She comes into contact with different levels of her subconscious realities that greatly differ from the ordinary world she is familiar with. The word “plunge” is associated with a forceful speed and an act of plummeting into a world below. Her finishing knowing shows her full realization of her own loss of sanity. When “knowing” is finished, she illustrates how she taken over by physical and mental relief. The ending with “- then -‘ serves as the closure of the speaker’s descent to insanity. The dashes depict a sense of urgency that increased throughout the entirety of the poem, until the speaker is cut off and drops down into insanity. The ending with a dash leaves the poem to continue into the silence as the voice continues to echo and she passes into an empty void, from which she cannot return. The way in which Dickinson ends the poem proposes that the speaker has completely lost her rationality. Ultimately, the personification of a broken plank is used to display the weakness and complete loss of autonomy that result from a total destruction of sanity and rationality.

In the famous poem I Felt a Funeral, in my Brain, through the following of the speaker’s plunge into madness, Emily Dickinson expresses that the loss of self is created by the madness that comes with mental insanity. First, Dickinson uses the personification of mourners and the repetition of a drum to display the endless pain resulted from the endless weight of mental insanity. Then, the personification of silence and the use of an ear as a passive receiver of noise demonstrate the numbness to grief as a result of the feelings of alienation and detachment from oneself. Finally, using a broken plank of reason, Dickinson depicts the destruction of sanity due to terror taking over the individual. Through this poem Dickinson lays the foundation for postmodern poets to write on the topic of sanity and the perception of the individual. Postmodernism rejects the theories that science and reason explain all of reality. Dickinson’s ideas of madness and the unknown inner workings of the brain help to highlight that there is no absolute version of reality.

Works Cited

  • Dickinson, Emily. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Boston: Little, Brown, 1924;
  •, 2000.
  • Emily Dickinson Archive. Accessed 21 Oct. 2019. 

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