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The Dying Heartbeat of a Women’s Sanity

Updated on July 30, 2012
Emily Dickinson. An incredibly talented and interesting woman, Dickinson often dealt with issues concerning the mind and sanity.
Emily Dickinson. An incredibly talented and interesting woman, Dickinson often dealt with issues concerning the mind and sanity.

Emily Dickinson’s poem “I Felt a Funeral in My Brain” is a haunting metaphor comparing a funeral, or literal death, to the loss of one’s mind. Dickinson’s masterful use of language, both figurative and literal, acts as the vehicle in which she takes the reader down this disturbing and morbid path. Specifically, the line length and rhythm of the poem serve to mimic the cadence and meter of a heartbeat. The heart beats and beats, until its abrupt end at the close of the poem, symbolizing the death of the narrator’s sanity, or rather, the loss of it.

Dickinson wastes no time setting the dark overtone of this poem. She wrenches the reader out of their balanced existence into her depression in the first line, “I felt a funeral in my brain”. She uses this metaphor comparing a funeral to the loss of her mind both figuratively and literally. Figuratively, it lends the reader of the poem an idea of how deep the narrator’s depression goes. Anyone who has been to a funeral is well aware of the dominant emotion felt during the event. More importantly the funeral that she speaks of is literally a funeral for her dying sanity.

The second line of the poem describes the attendants of the funeral as, “mourners to and fro”, as if they were all continuously pacing. This continuous motion of the “mourners” symbolizes her inability to focus her racing thoughts and shows the chaos that is going on in her mind. This chaos is further highlighted through her near recovery in the closing lines of the first stanza. “Kept treading – treading – till it seemed, that sense was breaking through”, this is the only line of the whole poem that seems to show any hope for the narrator recovering. It is not as if she loses it all at once, but instead she slowly struggles, only to get glimpses of salvation before slipping back into darkness.

The first stanza also defines the overall rhythm of the poem. This slow but steady pulsing meter is not unlike the beat of a human heart. The pauses that Dickinson employs to break up each sentence cause the pulsing dialogue, like the pulsing of a human heart. The heart represents not her literal heart beating in her chest, but the figurative heart of her sanity. When a person literally dies their heart stops. In the poem, the heart of her sanity eventually stops, resulting in the death of her sanity. The rhythm also symbolizes the literal pulsing of the narrator’s head, not unlike that of a pounding headache. The headache is the physical manifestation of her condition that accompanies the mental side effects.

Dickinson delves more deeply into this rhythmic pulsing in the second stanza of the poem where she talks about it directly. She first sets up the metaphoric scene, “and when they all were seated, a service, like a drum”. This opening line shows that her condition has progressed for the worse. The mourners are all seated and the funeral goes on as if to the beat of a drum. The stanza closes “kept beating – beating – till I thought, my mind was going numb”. The beating is the literal pounding in her head that has now progressed to such a degree that it has gone “numb”. She can’t maintain a coherent thought because the pounding is so terrible.

Within the next stanza the mood and her condition progress even further as the poem gains an added level of darkness. Her depression is now joined by feelings of helplessness. She says, “And then I heard them lift a Box, and creak across my Soul”. The box represents a casket, one in which symbolically her sanity now lies. In a sense she is trapped, for inside the box she is helpless and alone, accompanied only by her own incoherent thoughts. This helplessness is made ever more apparent in the line “with those same boots of lead, again, then space – began to toll”. This symbolizes the people walking over her abandoning her in her struggle. The “boots of lead” conveys to the reader the great weight that she now feels on top of her as she must now fight this struggle alone.

The next stanza brings the feeling of helplessness to another level. In the line, “As all the Heavens were a bell, and being, but and ear”, Dickinson’s use of the word “heavens” shows the magnitude of noise that is now thrashing around in her head, noise that she is unable to combat. This is shown through her metaphor comparing herself to an ear. An ear can only receive sounds but cannot act back on them, so she like an ear can only endure what is happening to her but is helpless to do anything about it. In the last lines of the stanza she has resigned to her solitude, “wrecked, solitary, here” she is only accompanied by the “silence” around her.

The final progression of this terrifying event comes when the floor of the speaker’s sanity collapses beneath her. Here Dickinson’s imagery of a “plank in reason” breaking paints the dark picture of the narrator falling through the floor of her consciousness. This is the actual breaking point in which the weight in her mind becomes too much, and the structure of her sanity finally fails, breaking as if it were a literal plank of wood that might break under some great weight.

Yet there is no respite, for her torment does not end there. Dickinson describes the narrator’s continuing chaos in the line, “And I dropped down, and down --, and hit a world, at every plunge”. Even in the end there is no order, even in the collapse, she continuously hits new worlds, which represent glimpses of sanity, but can never regain herself completely. It is a vicious cycle of plunging in and out of consciousness never to become fully sane again but never to reach the finiteness of being fully lost either.

This never ending collapse is perfectly shown in the last line, when the heartbeat of her mind abruptly ends in mid sentence, “and finished knowing – then”, symbolizing the death of her sanity. This sudden end on an incoherent note is the real beauty in Dickinson’s writing. Among all the other images and symbols in the poem this non-ending is above all else what gave me the true feeling of despair and loss that is associated with the narrator’s experience. She has plummeted so far from reality that she cannot even finish the poem on a coherent note; her final thought can’t even be expressed. This leaves the reader with the same feeling of a void, which should be filled but is inexplicably empty. For me this is the real power of the work, Dickinson manages, from start to finish, to perfectly convey the feelings of depression, despair, helplessness and inevitable nothingness to her reader. This is what sets poetry apart from other writing, not only its ability to tell a story, but to evoke the real emotions of the story inside the reader, and let the reader feel and truly experience the emotion firsthand.


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