Poem of the Day: ‘I Felt a Funeral in My Brain’

Why are poets so obsessed with death? The answer is that poets are obsessed with reality. And what’s more real than death, inescapable and universal?

DyanFrench via Wikimedia Commons CC3.0
Amherst West Cemetery on Triangle Street at Amherst, Massachusetts. DyanFrench via Wikimedia Commons CC3.0

To mark the December 10 birthday of Emily Dickinson (1830–1886), today we offer our readers an emblematic Dickinson poem: a poem about death. Reading Dickinson, we can readily feel that for every poem that begins, “Hope is the thing with feathers,” there are five more poems that begin with such lines as, “I heard a fly buzz when I died.” Or, “Because I could not stop for Death, / He kindly stopped for me.” And feeling this way, we ask ourselves, Why are poets so obsessed with death?

The answer, of course, is that poets are obsessed with reality. And what’s more real than death, inescapable and universal? Sun readers will recall, for example, Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” which takes death’s inevitability as its subject. Tennyson, the laureate, speaking for a country and a culture, asks, “How will we die?” It’s an uncomfortable question. Nobody wants to think about dying. The best most of us can do is to consider death as a thing that happens to other people, though it leaves its painful mark on us as well.

Strikingly, what Dickinson so often considers is not how, as a culture, to think about death. Instead, she asks how she herself will die. In today’s poem, for example, with her characteristic slant-rhymed common- or hymn-meter quatrains, she imagines death as a thing which happens not to somebody else, not to the whole mass of humanity, but to her. It rehearses, imaginatively, the personal experience of being dead. What will that be like?

Her newly deceased speaker at first apprehends her own death as a series of sensory impressions, which she is conscious enough, still, to understand and narrate as events in time. She describes, in sequence, the feeling of the “Funeral, in my Brain,” with the tramping feet of mourners, the monotone drumroll of the church service, the creaking of boots as her coffin is lifted and carried. Yet then, like a person being hanged, she feels the “Plank in Reason” break beneath her. As the poem ends, on an inconclusive em-dash, its thoughts cut short, its speaker drops utterly out of “knowing” into the unimaginable, timeless, silent mystery beyond. 

I Felt a Funeral in My Brain
by Emily Dickinson

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 —

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With “Poem of the Day,” The New York Sun offers a daily portion of verse selected by Joseph Bottum with the help of the North Carolina poet Sally Thomas, the Sun’s associate poetry editor. Tied to the day, or the season, or just individual taste, the poems are drawn from the deep traditions of English verse: the great work of the past and the living poets who keep those traditions alive. The goal is always to show that poetry can still serve as a delight to the ear, an instruction to the mind, and a tonic for the soul.


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