Context: This poem was written in 1862 during the Civil War. It was a very productive year for Emily Dickinson’s poetry writing. She composed more than 300 verses this year. I wrote previously on Emily Dickinson (1830-1866) on this blog and mentioned her poor health which may have contributed to her self-imposed isolation and preferred confinement to her private rooms. She seldom went out. Modern scholars have tried their very best to figure out what may have happened to her health this year because of what she wrote in this poem. We know Emily sought help in an opthalmic consulation with Dr. Henry Willard Williams in Boston during the Civil War. She had eye problems. As Blanchard states in his article published in 2012 no records related to any diagnosis have survived. “Photophobia, aching eyes, and a restriction in her ability to work up close were her main symptoms. Iritis, exotropia, or psychiatric problems are the most frequent diagnoses offered to explain her difficulties.” (Blanchard 2012)
There’s a lot of physical pain present in many of Emily’s poems. We don’t know what her illnesses were. Her death certificate lists her cause of death as “Bright’s disease”, which is not an illness but a term that was used for a collection of medical symptoms including nephritis (kidney disease) and hypertension. Maybe it was something neurological or maybe she suffered from mental health issues. She was also a colorful personality with some eccentric habits like refusing to see people, even close family members from time to time.
It’s hard to know what her problems were. If she had visual problems this may have caused her headaches. In this poem she compares her pain to a funeral going on inside her head. Notice how the physical pain she’s feeling is transformed into noisy mourners until the mourners sense themselves and finally sit down. Something else takes over which is called The Service. “The Service” is also uncomfortable and noisy to the narrator and she feels a repeated drumming inside the head. Notice the narrator in the poem does not describe what she sees, only what she hears. The noise goes on until “Being” and “Ear” become one. Take extra notice to what happens in the final sentences. The narrator drops down after “a Plank of Reason”and then “hit a World”. This will probably let you know the narrator doesn’t die a physical death, but rather returns to the world and to her senses.
Themes: Pain in the head, sensitivity to noise, tinnitus?, migraine?, depression?