James R. Guthrie

James R. Guthrie: On 280 ("I felt a Funeral, in my Brain")

In the first three stanzas Dickinson carefully erects a plausible physical setting, which she then demolishes in the last two stanzas. The poem itself functions as a house with a "cellar" in which the narrator listens to the mourners carrying a coffin, perhaps her own, across the floor "above" her head; then, in the fourth stanza, the word "here" suddenly becomes problematic, immediately before the narrator drops, first, through the cellar floor, then through her own grave, and then through the last line of the poem--multiple levels of reality or "World[s]" that her body and consciousness pierce, at every "Plunge." The "here" at the end of the poem, or the point of view from which the narrator describes the action, is finally a very different "here" from that in the fourth stanza, the place where the speaker stands as she listens to the heavens tolling like an immense bell. Because the poem replicates the disappearance or appropriation of a physical space, it can inspire in readers a sensation of bodily and intellectual disorientation that may begin to approximate Dickinson's own confusion as she made her way around the Dickinson household. Furthermore, the narrator's "unconsciousness" resulting from her "fall" in the poem's last line becomes a metaphor not only for the cessation of consciousness that is death but for the soul shut out of heaven, condemned to pass from world to world, existence to existence, without ever achieving the physical stability which is analogous to spiritual salvation.

From Emily Dickinson’s Vision: Illness and Identity in Her Poetry. (University Press of Florida, 1998.) Copyright © 1998 by the Board of Regents of the State of Florida.