Text of the Poem

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—

Footnotes

  1. The repetition of “down” in this line reflects the repetition of the sounds in the beginning of the poem. The speaker’s plunge into this grave reflects a plunge into madness while the repetition recalls the way in which sound brought about that madness.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  2. When the “plank in reason” breaks, the speaker falls into a seemingly bottomless pit. This metaphorically could represent a descent into a madness or a complete mental deterioration. The “reason” or “sense” that has been holding her up and trying to break through the madness since the beginning of the poem finally fails in this stanza.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  3. In the time in which Dickinson wrote, caskets would be placed on wooden planks and suspended over an open grave during a funeral. The planks would be removed and the casket would be manually lowered by six people when it came time for interment. In this metaphor, the speaker replaces these planks with “reason.” This suggests that her mind is in the casket suspended over a grave and held up only by these thin planks of reason.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  4. The coordinating conjunction “and” breaks this line several times to signal that there are three subjects: “Being,” “I,” and “Silence.” This means that the being can be interpreted as the speaker’s physical body, defined only as an ear by the appositive phrase. The “I” then stands in for the speaker’s self, or soul. Finally, “Silence," described as “some strange Race,” enters the line and “wrecks,” or stops, the tolling of the bells. This entrance metaphorically wrecks both “I” and the “Being.”

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  5. Though the syntax of this line makes it difficult to know what subject each clause refers to, one could read “but an Ear” as the speaker claiming that she is “but an ear.” In this way, the speaker reduces herself to this single sense, hearing. She becomes only the mechanism through which she experiences this all-consuming noise.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  6. The sound in the speaker’s head has grown from drumming, to creaking, to filling an entire space, to filling all of the Heavens. The escalation of the sound signifies that the speaker has been completely consumed by these thoughts.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  7. This stanza represents the total collapse of the speaker’s mental state. The syntax of this stanza mirrors the speaker’s mental collapse. She speaks in fragmented sentences and incomplete thoughts which build metaphors without clear physical referents.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  8. Notice though that this “tolling” is not directly connected to the sound of bells. The “space” tolls rather than the line directly stating that *bells* toll. The speaker conjures the sound of bells and the image of a funeral without stating either word. In this way, the speaker draws the reader into her mind; we are hearing and seeing what she is hearing and seeing without the direct language that references the physical objects.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  9. In Christian and Catholic funeral traditions, a bell would be rung slowly to signal someone’s death and passage into the next life. The word “toll” alludes to John Donne’s poem “For whom the Bell Tolls,” a poem in which the speaker hears church bells ringing at a funeral and recognizes his own inevitable death.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  10. “Creak” is a verb that means to make a harsh, shrill, or grating sound due to friction and strain. It has negative connotations that suggest extreme discomfort or auditory violence. That this horrible sound affects the speaker’s “soul” suggests that the sound has consumed the speaker. Sound in this poem builds from a drum to this “creaking” to show the growing intensity of the speaker’s fears.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  11. Notice that she does not *know* her mind is going numb but rather *thinks* her mind is going numb. This underscores the internal nature of the speaker’s crisis: the sound and sensations she experiences all occur within her head.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  12. “Numbness” is a lack of physical sensation. This “numbing” of her mind could be symbolic for the numbing of the “sense” that was trying to break through in the first stanza. The sound has built so much that it is drowning out her sense.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  13. Notice how the “sound” in this stanza builds. It begins with the parishioners sitting quietly, then the drum slowly building in her mind. This movement dramatizes the speaker’s growing mental instability.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  14. One interpretation of “Service” is the unification of the mourners. While in the first stanza the mourners meander to and fro, in the second stanza, the mourners seem to take uniform action: they become seated and take part in this “Service.” If we interpret the mourners as frantic thoughts in the speaker’s head, this “Service” and drumming come to represent all of her thoughts narrowing down to one preoccupation that takes over her whole mind.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  15. “Finished knowing” here becomes a metaphor for the fact that the speaker can no longer describe her thoughts and feelings using words. She is no longer a part of the physical world to which these words apply. The word, “then,” thus holds a double meaning. On the one hand, the speaker has moved to a place that normal language cannot describe, and her speech drops off because of this. On the other hand, the speaker cannot describe what comes next because she does not know.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  16. “A Service” is an odd way to refer to the Funeral in her mind. The pronoun “a” makes the line sound like it is one of many rather than *the* funeral that she has been talking about throughout the poem. This syntax causes the reader to question which service she refers to.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  17. Notice that the poem ends with an em-dash, suggesting that we cannot know what happens after death or insanity. We lose the speaker’s voice and final explanation of her experience of death, much like we would after an actual death.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  18. “Sense” could refer to her physical senses. In this interpretation of the word, the mourners are pacing so disruptively that physical “Sense” breaks through the stillness of death. She becomes unable to ignore these “Mourners” who impose themselves on her senses.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  19. Here, “Sense” could mean rational thought. In this interpretation, the thoughts go back and forth in her head until she feels as though “Sense” can break through the chaos in her mind.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  20. Dickinson’s use of the word “hit” here is interesting as it suggests a sudden impact or collision. Though the speaker’s descent into madness has been somewhat gradual, the pace here quickens. If we read the poem as the speaker’s descent into madness caused by a recognition of her own mortality, this realization is violent and disorienting. She “plunge[s]” into “World[s]” (thoughts, feelings, ideas) that she can no longer make sense of. She no longer has anything to keep herself grounded with.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  21. Em-dashes are punctuation marks that indicate emphasis. In repeating the word “treading” and offsetting it with em-dashes, the speaker adds gravity to this word. The mourners are not simply pacing; they are walking with pressure, trampling, and crushing. The emphatic repetition of this word and others throughout the poem creates a tone similar to that of a funeral dirge.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  22. Since the whole poem takes place inside the speaker’s head, the meandering “mourners” can be seen as the speaker’s wandering thoughts, pacing “to and fro.” This movement replicates the incessant, repetitive thought pattern that signals the speaker’s overwhelming obsession with death.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  23. Notice that the speaker’s thoughts here are both ambiguous and fragmented as she listens to these increasingly loud noises. The speaker is unable to speak in full sentences or to communicate her experience, indicating her diminishing mental processes. Consider too, that the speaker’s inability to grasp and communicate what is happening emphasizes her separation from the physical world—either in death, or in mental awareness as she retreats further into her mind and away from her surroundings.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  24. Funerals generally precede a burial of something that has died. In using this metaphor, the speaker could be symbolically burying clear, rational thought. The “funeral” in her brain then commemorates her descent into madness. She could also be imagining her own death. The “funeral” then symbolizes the madness caused by acknowledging her own mortality.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  25. Recall that the term “creak” in the previous line has violent connotations, and consider that lead is the heaviest of base metals. The imagery of the “Boots of Lead” here thus creates an even more brutal, cruel tone. Further, considering that Dickinson often capitalized various words for emphasis, her capitalization of the “Boots of Lead” also gives them a heavy, powerful feeling in relation to the rest of the line.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  26. “Brain” in this context has two meanings. It can both signify the physical organ and the abstract idea of the speaker’s mind. Dual meanings such as this one occur throughout the poem to underscore the speaker’s deteriorating mental state.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  27. Notice that the speaker’s perceptions all come from the sense of sound rather than sight or smell. If she is imagining herself as a corpse, she would be listening to her own funeral—her eyes closed as in death.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  28. What the speaker “heard” in this line is the pallbearers (people who help carry the casket at a funeral) lifting the “Box,” or coffin. The coffin can symbolize different things depending on interpretation. If we read this poem as being about the speaker’s descent into madness, the coffin may be carrying the speaker’s formerly “sane” self. If the poem is the speaker’s imagining her own death and funeral, the coffin contains her corpse as she imagines it.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  29. “Funeral” is a metaphor that communicates grief over the death of something. The speaker experiences this feeling of mourning within her “brain.” This opening suggests that the whole poem will occur within the speaker’s head.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Editor
  30. For each stanza, Dickinson will detail different parts of funeral rites in order to convey the speaker’s mental collapse. Here, the “Mourners” from the first stanza have settled in their seats to listen to the service. The third stanza details the speaker’s casket being carried to the burial site. In the fourth, the “Bell” tolls to signal her passing, and in the final stanza, her casket is lowered into the ground.

    — Kayla, Owl Eyes Staff
  31. For ED, whatever comes after death, even the metaphorical death of her intellect, is completely unknown. Even though ED wrote several poems about death and dying, she does not speculate about an afterlife.

    — Stephen Holliday
  32. ED sees that her intellect, like a coffin, is lowered into the ground where there is no longer even the possibility of intellect.

    — Stephen Holliday
  33. She sees herself reduced to hearing, not thinking, and, at last, alone.

    — Stephen Holliday
  34. Again, the dull ceremony of the funeral is taking its toll on her ability to think.  She is clearly referring to the death of her intellect.

    — Stephen Holliday
  35. The dull formality of the ceremony seems to be affecting her ability to think.

    — Stephen Holliday
  36. This may refer to the return of her reason or ability to think clearly or that her intellect is failing, "breaking through" to a lesser level of thinking.

    — Stephen Holliday
  37. This is one of ED's most enigmatic poems, but her focus on some sort of personal anguish is obvious.  She is imagining attending her own funeral or, more likely, the loss of her reasoning capabilities.

    — Stephen Holliday