Sharon Cameron: On 280 ("I felt a Funeral, in my Brain") (2)

I have written elsewhere of this poem that it represents the making of a though unconscious (LT, pp. 96-98). The poem cannot represent a literal funeral, since people do not feel funerals, they attend them. They also do not feel funerals in the brain. Moreover, here the funeral seems to precede the death as well as the burial of the thing which is ceremonially presided over. Since what is in the brain that can be buried is a thought, the poem, I have argued, represents ambivalence about making a thought unconscious. Ambivalence is epitomized by the mourners, who could be understood to lament the burial of the thought, although, ultimately, in sitting for the ceremony, they also come to consent to it. Ambivalence is definitely underscored by the second of the variants and the variant grammar it gives the poem's final line (fig. 10, second manuscript page of "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain"). For that variant, written below and to the right of the word on the line, makes it unclear whether knowing is finished (there being no longer any knowing, but only unconsciousness), or whether what is "Got through—" is the experience of unconsciousness, which leaves "knowing" in its wake. In the second way of reading the poem's last line, according not only to its variant but also to its variant grammar, knowing is what begins at the poem's end, rather than what concludes. Finally, a third way of reading the variants is to see them in relation: that is, they precisely dramatize the conflict registered throughout the poem, and, as I have tried to illustrate, throughout the earlier poems in the fascicle. As noted, this conflict is registered in miniature by the alternative words—and the alternative punctuation of the same words, as exemplified by the possibly implicit but absent comma of "Finished[,] knowing—then—" and the absent comma of "Finished knowing—then—." Thus the implicit double grammar, raised both by the variant and by a closer scrutiny of the line itself, equivocates whether knowing is finished, or whether it survives when the experience recorded by the poem is finished.

A related ambiguity is reiterated in the poem's fourth line, where "Sense . . . breaking through—" connotes that sense is either "breaking down" or, idiomatically, "emerging." In the first understanding, sense's breaking through consciousness means the speaker's breaking down because sense falls out or away once it breaks through (not because the verb "breaking" itself necessarily means "collapsing"). And a similar ambiguity is reiterated in the peculiar formulation of the second to last stanza: "I, and Silence, some strange Race." The line raises the question of whether the status of personhood is being conferred upon silence or of whether the speaker, by allying herself with something non-human, inanimate, not even palpable, is herself ceding that status. For the speaker seems to personify silence and identify herself with it. If the conjunction is so construed, she and silence might have equal status, might even be considered to form a "Race." Alternatively, since silence doesn't have the status of a person, the speaker's identification could be regarded as working to cancel the speaker's own personhood. In the second way of reading the line, despite the attempt to personify silence, the speaker rather depersonalizes the self to the point of obliteration. Or, finally, like the other two lines that must be read in contradictory ways, this one invites not a double reading but, more specifically, two readings that contend with each other, enacting at the level of the individual line the conflict registered in the poem and, more generally, in the fascicle as a whole.

From Choosing Not Choosing: Dickinson's Fascicles. Copyright © 1992 by The University of Chicago.

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Criticism Overview
Title Sharon Cameron: On 280 ("I felt a Funeral, in my Brain") (2) Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Sharon Cameron Criticism Target Emily Dickinson
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 12 Sep 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Choosing Not Choosing: Dickinson's Fascicles
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