“I felt a Funeral, in my Brain”- A poem by Emily Dickinson

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?

Poem 340

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 –

Sources
Blanchard, D.L (2012). “Emily Dickinson’s ophthalmic consultation with Henry Willard Williams, MD.” Quote from Abstract.
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Emily Dickinson

 

‘After great pain, a formal feeling comes’- A poem by Emily Dickinson

Context: A poem written by Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) from Amherst, Mass. This poem is about the experience related to bodily pain and it’s presented to the reader in various conflicting images and words. The poem was found after Emily’s death. The poem is very typical of what Emily usually writes about: sensitivity to her external surroundings and personal incidents in life; and personal experiences about love, pain, death. Emily had many health problems. In 1884 she had seen “a great darkness coming” and fainted while baking in the kitchen. She remained unconscious late into the night and weeks of ill health followed. On November 30, 1885, her feebleness and other symptoms were so worrying that her brother Austin canceled a trip to Boston. It’s hard to say what kind of illnesses she had and they may have contributed to her secluded lifestyle. On the death of her father in 1874 she entered into complete seclusion.

Themes: bleak reality, mind/body, shock, pain. Pay attention to how the rhytm changes to describe the shock and how the following imagery presents the entire process of sensation until immobility occur.

 

After great pain, a formal feeling comes –
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –
The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’
And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?

The Feet, mechanical, go round –
A Wooden way
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought –
Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone –

This is the Hour of Lead –
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –
First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –

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