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In a series of poems beginning in the early 1860s, Dickinson describes what might best be called her fall from metaphysical grace and the epistemological impact this event had upon her. In these poems, Dickinson's confrontation with the abyss becomes the central metaphor for her vision of a world from which transcendent meaning has been withdrawn and in which, therefore, the speaker is free to reach any conclusion she wishes or, indeed, to reach no conclusion at all.

'I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,' c. 1862, is one such poem. On the surface, this poem is about death or, possibly, madness. But, finally, effectively, if it is 'about' anything, it is about dread. In it, to use Miller's words, Dickinson does not reorder 'what formerly appeared to be conclusively known.’ She tells what it feels like to realize that nothing can be known at all. . . .

As in the surrealist paintings of de Chirico and Magritte, outsize 'humanistic' detail functions in this poem to evoke all the terror that the isolated individual feels when confronting nothingness--the abyss. In the poem's otherwise emptied-out landscape, 'the Heavens' become a 'Bell,' 'Being' an 'Ear.' Whether it is death or insanity that opens up this vision to her, what the speaker realizes is that she is utterly alone and totally free. There is neither a sustaining God nor a sustaining scaffold of meaning to support her. Like the trapdoor on a gallows or like the planks supporting a coffin until it is dropped into the grave, the 'bottom’ drops out of reality. For the speaker, anything is possible in a world that is fundamentally absurd--where you can drop 'down, and down' and 'hit a World, at every plunge.' As in 'Four Trees,' the only conclusion to this experience is the conclusion that not-knowing (not just death but the acceptance of ignorance) brings.


From Emily Dickinson, Woman Poet. Copyright © 1990 by Paula Bennet. Reprinted by permission of the author.