Karen Ford: On 280 ("I felt a Funeral, in my Brain")
The relationship between figurative excess and endings that lack closure suggests why so many of Dickinson's poems were originally published with their difficult endings deleted (or not selected for publication at all until they were published in the complete, variorum edition in 1955). "[I felt a Funeral, in my Brain]" (P 280) was typically printed without its last stanza:
[. . . .]
And then a Plank in Reason, broke And I dropped down, and down-- And hit a World, at every plunge, And Finished knowing--then--
Yet, if we recognize the final stanza as a product of figurative escalations that are excessive rather than standard, we begin to understand its place in the poem.
"[I felt a Funeral--in my Brain]" begins, as so many of the poems do, with an assertion whose stability sounds unquestionable. Despite its semantic oddness, the first line is delivered with rhetorical assurance that temporarily contains its volatile subject matter. The sense of containment is not merely a product of orderly syntax and confident tone, however; it also derives from the claustrophobic setting of the funeral. Though the feeling of a funeral occurs in the speaker's brain, the analogy suggests premature burial. The mental state the speaker describes is not merely like a funeral in her brain, it is like being buried alive: the heightened awareness of sounds (treading, beating, creaking, tolling) and the sense of enclosure ("in my Brain," they all were seated," "a Box") combine with other evidence in the poem to suggest that the mourners are conducting a funeral service for a speaker who is not yet dead ("My Mind was going numb," "creak across my Soul").
The mental state described here begins as a numbing, monotonous, claustrophobic feeling but proceeds to its opposite. If the beginning of the poem figures extreme interiority, the ending of the poem depicts an even more disturbing exteriority whose boundlessness is finally indescribable. The "Plank in Reason" that breaks in the final stanza is anticipated in the shift from interior to exterior space, as though the walls, floor, and ceiling of the room (or the sides, lid, and bottom of the coffin), all made of planks, suddenly disappear, plunging the speaker into limitless and terrifying space.
The figurative path to the complete loss of reason, and its attendant spatial dissolution, is difficult to follow. Comparison with the more logical sequence of a similar poem offers an instructive contrast. "[I felt a Cleaving in my Mind]" (P 937) employs a metaphor that describes exactly what "[I felt a Funeral, in my Brain]" enacts (that is, poem 937 says what poem 280 does):
I felt a Cleaving in my Mind-- As if my Brain had split-- I tried to match it--Seam by Seam— But could not make them fit.
The thought behind, I strove to join Unto the thought before-- But Sequence ravelled out of Sound Like Balls--upon a Floor.
The word "cleaving" may abbreviate the contradictions of "[I felt a Funeral, in my Brain]" between the description of the mental state as claustrophobic (cleaving together) and boundless (cleaving apart). The second line establishes that the sensation being described here is some sort of mental falling apart. The orderly progression of thoughts, compared to a string of yarn or thread, cannot be knit or sewn together into a coherent sequence. On the contrary, the balls of yarn (perhaps a graphic corollary for the brain with its bundled folds and convolutions) unravel when they roll to the floor.
Not only does this poem describe the movement toward disintegration that poem 280 undertakes to depict, but it also refers to the difficulty of such representation: "But Sequence ravelled out of Sound" is not just a description of mental undoing, it is an account of linguistic failure. The sequence of mental events that leads to the disruption of rationality (another sequence) quickly moves out of verbal reach (out of sound). But that one phrase is the only hint that "[I felt a Cleaving in my Mind] " cannot fully represent its subject. Its metaphors, strings of yarn torn from some knitted whole and balls of yarn unraveling on the floor, are adequate to the task they are given. The consistency of these analogies and the brevity of the poem are indices of a certain conceptual neatness.
The difference in "[I felt a Funeral, in my Brain]" is not that its metaphors are inadequate but that its subject is much more complicated and elusive than the subject of poem 937. Here the figurative increases must be followed with decreasing certainty. In stanza one, the speaker's mental state is compared to a funeral and is characterized by morbidity, monotony, and repetitiveness so oppressive that "it seemed / That Sense was breaking through." In the second stanza, the monotony and repetitiveness continue, but the sensation of motion (in the treading feet) decreases as "they all were seated." The sound of a drum replaces the treading with even more monotonous and repetitive beating until the speaker feels her mind "going numb." When, in stanza three, she "hears" the creaking of the pall bearers' steps carrying the coffin "across [her] Soul," something changes. Perhaps the movement from the interior space of the funeral service to the exterior space of the graveyard precipitates the drastic figurative change when "Space--began to toll." The tolling of a church bell to signal the burial of the dead is consistent with the metaphor thus far, as the monotony of a ringing bell is akin to the insistent treading, beating, and creaking that precede it. What is not consistent, however, is that all of "Space" is tolling, not just a church bell. At the end of stanza three, then, the setting of the initial figure is abandoned, and only the maddening sound persists to carry the metaphors of the poem forward.
Vast, undifferentiated, resounding space is the setting of lines 11 through 14, a setting, if it can any longer be termed such, of pure sound. Space tolls as [if] "all the Heavens were a Bell" and "Being, but an Ear." Whatever the speaker means by "Being," she is not included in that category, for she and "Silence, some strange Race" are [ship]wrecked in this world of sound, like two lost mariners washed up in some alien and, we discover, hostile land. "Wrecked, solitary, here" suggests shipwreck and strange lands, but we must remember that the speaker and her companion, Silence, are disembodied; and even Being, the native race of this aural world, is "but an Ear." It is worth reflecting, before proceeding to the final stanza, that the speaker has moved from the claustrophobic environment of the funeral (perhaps of the coffin) to the boundless environment of pure sound; worse, the mind-numbing experience of the beginning of the poem has reduced her to silence, rendering her strange and solitary in this world of sound. It is this strangeness and isolation that she amplifies in the final stanza.
The last stanza restores the spatial setting, at least to the limited extent that one prop, a plank, from the material world is poised precariously over this aural abyss. Balancing on the imagery of the preceding stanza, the speaker seems to be walking the plank of a [pirate] ship, the victim of a nautical execution that recurs to the funeral motif. When the "Plank in Reason" breaks, however, she plunges into space again, rather than into the sea, and thus descends through the vast emptiness that here seems to be outer space: she "hit[s] a World, at every plunge."
This dizzying perspective of the speaker tumbling through space yet colliding with whole worlds (then bouncing off of them and continuing her fall?) is difficult to picture, which is precisely the point of such excessive imagery. Once again the admission of failure and the end of the poem coincide: "then," like "now" in "[Grief is a Mouse]," points to a moment when the poem's formulations recognize defeat. "How then know" and "Finished knowing--then" bring their respective poem's processes of knowing to an end, though the way that "—then--" in this poem is suspended between two dashes suggests both ending and continuation: at that moment [then], I finished knowing; and, I finished knowing, [and]. . . then [I can't convey what happened then]. In either case, what the poem is able to do with words has ended.
From Gender and The Poetics of Excess: Moments of Brocade. Copyright © 1997 by the University Press of Mississippi. Reprinted with the permission of the author.
|Title||Karen Ford: On 280 ("I felt a Funeral, in my Brain")||Type of Content||Criticism|
|Criticism Author||Karen Ford||Criticism Target||Emily Dickinson|
|Criticism Type||Poet||Originally Posted||12 Sep 2015|
|Publication Status||Excerpted Criticism||Publication||Gender and the Poetics of Excess: Moments of Brocade|
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