Filled with words and phrases laden with imagery of death, drowning, and droning drums, Emily Dickinson's haunting poem "I Felt a Funeral in My Brain" provides insight into a fractured mind. The poet employs a plethora of poetic techniques such as alliteration, repetition, rhyme and rhythm to create mood and convey the central themes of emptiness and mental chaos. Alliteration and repetition reflect the motif of drums beating, while rhyming evokes the tonal qualities of the bells that the speaker hears. Therefore, in conjunction with the musical motifs in "I Felt a Funeral in My Brain," the poem is itself highly lyrical and rhythmic. The poet's use of repetition also creates the thematic tension much like the crescendo of a shaman's drums induces a trance. In addition to the poem's overt lyricism and musicality, Dickinson's work also includes powerful subtleties that contribute to its eerie effects. For example, Dickinson's diction is highly selective: the poet chooses deliberately ambiguous words as well as words with multiple meanings. For example, the "sense" she refers to in line 4 could mean common sense or it could refer to the five senses. The resulting double entendres create a layered effect in the poem. Likewise, layer and texture are conveyed through the commingling of sensory data, especially sound and touch, and with the inclusion of semantic threads: words in separate stanzas connecting at meaningful moments, such as the "sense" in stanza one connecting with "Reason" in stanza five. Traditional poetic devices such as alliteration and metaphoric imagery are combined with complex semantic layers and links in "I Felt a Funeral in My Brain," conveying the speaker's psychological and spiritual encounter with existential emptiness.
Alliteration and repetition provide the musical and rhythmic backbone of Dickinson's poem. Examples of alliteration include: "felt a funeral," "seated, / A service," "silence some strange," and "dropped down," (1; 6; 15; 17). In addition to alliteration, "I Felt a Funeral in My Brain" also contains several examples of word repetition: "treading, treading," "beating, beating," "down, and down," (3; 7; 17). The rhythmic quality of both alliteration and repetition mirrors the motif of drums that the speaker refers to in the second stanza. Therefore, poetic devices perfectly reflect the theme. Musicality is also conveyed through careful word selections: the third stanza begins: "And then I heard them lift a box, / And creak across my soul / ... / Then space began to toll," (9-12). Key words invoking music and sound include "heard," "creak," and "toll." Aural imagery continues in the fourth stanza, which continues where the third left off with its allusion to a bell tolling. However, the scope of the fourth stanza shifts from what the speaker hears within her brain toward universal, cosmic sounds: "As all the heavens were a bell, / And Being but an ear, / And I and silence some strange race," (13-15). In the fourth stanza the speaker's consciousness travels from within her own mind to the universal mind. Moreover, in the fourth stanza silence replaces the incessant and frightening beating of funeral drums, the creepy creaking of a coffin across the speaker's soul, and the clamor of a tolling bell. In the fourth stanza, the speaker denotes the intensity of sensory deprivation, namely silence.
In fact, sensory deprivation is one of the semantic threads in "I Felt a Funeral in my Brain." In line 8, the speaker states, "My mind was going numb." Later, numbness is replaced by silence; numbness is akin to the silence of a tactile organ. Both numbness and silence imply the absence of their respective sensations. Moreover, mental numbness corresponds with both the absence of sensory input and the absence of thought. Mental numbness, physical numbness, and silence are all interconnected themes. The theme of mental numbness is continued in the last extant line of the Dickinson poem, when the speaker has "Finished knowing," (19). The phrase "finished knowing" echoes the last line of stanza two, "My mind was going numb," (8). The speaker's numbness also serves to isolate her from the world at large: "I and silence some strange race, / Wrecked, solitary, here," (15-16). The intense loneliness referred to by the speaker here entails a higher order of numbness: spiritual numbness.
Just as sensory deprivation is a common tool used to create altered states of consciousness, so too is sensory overload. The speaker in "I Felt a Funeral in My Brain" describes both sensory deprivation and sensory overload. For example, the incessant "beating, beating" of the funeral drum directly caused the speaker's mind to go numb in stanza two. Furthermore, the presence of a funeral service within the speaker's brain connotes sensory chaos and mental overload. The funeral in the speaker's brain becomes a cacophony of syncopated rhythms, a sensory conflagration. The overload of the speaker's senses press in upon his or her brain until it goes numb and shuts off entirely, yielding total emptiness or unconsciousness. When "space began to toll," and "all the heavens were a bell," the speaker also suggests that the entire universe pulsated with an overload of aural stimulation (12, 13). Such overload incapacitated the speaker and lead to momentary or even permanent madness. It is precisely this type of madness that the speaker in the poem attempts to convey throughout all five stanzas of the poem, using diction, imagery, and literary construction.
Semantic layers in "I Felt a Funeral in My Brain" perfectly mirror the layers, levels, and textures of consciousness that the speaker experiences. One method of creating semantic layers is by the use of ambiguous words. In addition to the multiple meanings of "sense" in line 4, words like "service" in line 6, beating" in line 7, "space" in line 12, and "Plank" in line 16 have double entendres. Multiple meanings allow the speaker to convey several concepts at the same time. For example, "sense" in line 4 refers both to reason and to sensation, both of which are alluded to later on in the poem. Similarly, "space" can refer to emptiness; to the space within the confines of a coffin; or to the heavens the speaker refers to in the following line (12).
The coffin that is inferred by the word "box" in line 9 corresponds loosely with the word "Plank" in line 16. However, the word "Plank" connotes several things including a plank of wood as in a coffin and a pirate's plank. Both planks in turn denote death. Moreover, the image of a pirate's plank corresponds directly with the imagery and meaning of drowning. Capitalization of words like "Plank," "Reason," "Being," "World," and "Finished" demands an intense investigation of the meanings of those words (16; 14; 18; 19). The use of capitalization contributes to the richly layered text as well.
Double or multiple entendres also encourage the formation of semantic connections with different parts of the poem. For example, the "treading, treading" of the mourners in line 3 refers to treading water. Treading water almost certainly evokes the concept of drowning. The speaker picks up this semantic thread in the last stanza, which contains definite drowning imagery: "And I dropped down, and down-- / And hit a World, at every plunge," (17-18). Drowning imagery is also backed up by a reference to the pirate's "Plank" in line 16. The motion of dropping down and the word "plunge" connect with the treading of water earlier in the poem. Moreover, the imagery of drowning and sinking also correspond with the overall theme of delving into different layers and levels of consciousness.
Other semantic threads in "I Felt a Funeral in My Brain" include the theme of heaviness as well as the overt theme of death. Heaviness is imparted in the line "boots of lead," as well as the coffin "box," (11;…