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We may speculate that the poem charts the stages in the speaker's loss of consciousness, and this loss of consciousness is a dramatization of the deadening forces that today would be known as repression. We may further suppose that the speaker is reconstructing—or currently knowing—an experience whose pain in the past rendered it impossible to know. We note that part of the strangeness of her speech lies in the fact that not only is the poem grammatically past tense, but it also seems emotionally past tense. It illustrates the way in which one can relate experience and, at the same time, suffer a disassociation from it. Of course in this case the experience itself is one of disassociation. Since the speaker adds no emotive comment to the recollection, it is as if even in the recounting the words did not penetrate the walls of her own understanding. That the poem is about knowledge and the consequence of its repression is clear enough from the poem's initial conceit, for people do not feel funerals and certainly not in the brain. In addition, as a consequence of the persistent downward motion of the poem, we see that the funeral is rendered in terms of a burial, and this fusion or confusion points to a parallel confusion between unconsciousness and death. The burial of something in the mind—of a thought or experience or wish—the rendering of it unconscious, lacks an etiology; its occasion and even content here remain unspecified. As a consequence our attention is fixed on the process itself.

Examining the conceit, we can speculate that the mourners represent that part of the self which fights to resurrect or keep alive the thought the speaker is trying to commit to burial. They stand for that part of the self which feels conflict about the repressive gesture. "Treading—treading—," the self in conflict goes over the same ground of its argument with itself, and sense threatens to dissolve, "break through—," because of the mind's inability to resolve its contradictory impulses. In the second stanza, on a literal level the participants of the funeral sit for the service and read words over the dead. On a figural level the confusion of the mind quiets to one unanimous voice issuing its consent to the burial of meaning. But the mind's unanimity, its single voice, is no less horrible. The speaker hears it as a drum: rhythmic, repetitious, numbing. In the fourth stanza, the repressive force lashes the speaker with retaliatory distortion: the "Heavens" and the cosmos they represent toll as one overwhelming "Bell"; "Being" is reduced to the "Ear" that must receive it. No longer fighting the repressive instinct (for the "Mourners" have disappeared, "Being" and "I" are united), the self is a victim passively awaiting its own annihilation. When the "Plank in Reason," the last stronghold to resist its own dissolution, gives, and the speaker plummets through successive levels of meaning (an acknowledgment that repression has degrees), the result is a death of consciousness. As J. V. Cunningham remarks, the poem is a representation of a "psychotic episode" at the end of which the speaker passes out.

But if we agree that the poem is not about actual death, why is the funeral rendered in such literal terms, terms that might well lead a careless reader to mistake its very subject? Paul de Man, distinguishing between irony and allegory, provides a suggestive answer. Allegory, he writes, involves "the tendency of the language toward narrative, the spreading out along the axis of an imaginary time in order to give duration to what is, in fact, simultaneous within the subject." The structure of irony is the reverse of this form—the reduction of time to one single moment in which the self appears double or disjoint. Irony, de Man writes, is "staccato . . . a synchronic structure, while allegory appears as a successive mode capable of engendering duration as the illusion of a continuity that it knows to be illusory." Irony and allegory, he concludes, are two faces of the same experience, opposite ways of rendering sequence and doubleness. De Man's distinctions are illuminating for our understanding of the fusions in "I felt a Funeral in my Brain," for the poem exhibits a double sense of its own experience and of the form in which that experience is to be rendered. With no terms of its own, it is through its very disembodiment, its self-reflexive disassociation, that the experience wields the power it does. If it could be made palpable and objectified, it might be known and hence mastered. Thus the allegory of the funeral attempts to exteriorize and give a temporal structure to what is in fact interior and simultaneous. Because we see the stages of the funeral (stages that correspond to steps that will complete the repressive instinct) we cannot help but view repression in terms of death. Thus the funeral imagery, replete with mourners, coffin, and service, seems both to distract from the poem's subject of repression and to insist on the severity of its consequences. But it is in the tension between the two modes of knowing and of representation, between an allegorical structure and an ironic one, that the poem's interest lies. For structure and sequence fall away in the ironic judgment of the poem’s last line, which suggests, if implicitly, that action (exteriority) and knowledge (interiority) will always diverge. Even the attempt to reconstruct the experience and do it over with a different consequence leads, as it did the first time, to blankness. This divergence is further exemplified in the odd order of the poem's events: the funeral precedes death, at least the death of consciousness. Such inversion of normal sequence necessitates a figural reading of the poem and makes perfect sense within it, for Dickinson seems to be claiming we cannot "not know" in isolation and at will. What we choose not to know, what we submerge, like the buried root of a plant that sucks all water and life toward its source, pulls us down with a vengeance toward it.


From Lyric Time: Dickinson and the Limits of Genre. Copyright © 1979 by The Johns Hopkins UP.