I felt a Funeral, in my Brain
Emily Dickinson did not have writer's block in 1862. During that momentous year, in the thick of the Civil War, she wrote 366 poems. That's more than one a day! And these weren't just scratchings on the back of a cocktail napkin, they were some of the most influential poems written by any American.
Scholars would love to know just what was going on in Dickinson's life that spurred this incredible output, but she did a very good job at keeping her private life private. She spent a lot of her time at her home in Amherst, Massachusetts with family and close friends who came to visit. She hardly ever went out herself. She was, as we'd say today, an extremely "intense" person. Thomas Wentworth Higginson, one of the few people who appreciated her poetry in her lifetime, wrote after visiting Dickinson: "I never was with any one who drained my nerve power so much. Without touching her, she drew from me. I am glad not to live near her" (source). In all, Dickinson has one of the most fascinating and mysterious literary biographies that we know of, so we'd encourage you to find out more.
Dickinson was something of a packrat when it came to collecting her poetry. Out of more than a thousand poems, she published only a few in her lifetime. Even these were edited to make Dickinson seem more "normal" (source). She stashed most of her poems away in her room, and she sewed some of them into little booklets called "fascicles." And when we say sewed, we mean sewed: with a needle and string. The poem we call "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain" belonged to one of these fascicles. It was not published until after 1896, about a decade after her death.
But the world was not really ready for Dickinson until closer to the middle of the 20th century, when her unusual style and off-the-wall symbolism could be appreciated apart from the standards of traditional poetry. "I felt a Funeral" is one of her most famous and also one of her darkest. As with many of her poems, no one is quite sure what it's "about." Clearly, feeling a funeral in your brain is not a good thing. But, aside from that, who knows? It could be a poem about depression, or the process of forgetting some painful emotion, or maybe just a bad migraine. Whatever the motivation, this poem is one of the most harrowing poetic trips you'll ever take.
Why Should I Care?
It's the stuff of campfire horror stories: what if you died and were buried…but were conscious the whole time? Few things sound more terrifying to our ears. But admit it: even the cheeriest of us sometimes picture how things will go once we've passed away.
If you've ever suffered something traumatic in your life – something you wish you could "bury" and forget – then we don't have to sell you on this poem. But if you're maybe not so keen about reading yet another literary work on the subject of mortality, think of it as satisfying that subtle curiosity you have about what the world looks like from "the other side." Or if you're a fan or horror, you can think of this poem as similar to a Stephen King story without all the dialogue. If "I felt a Funeral" were a horror novel, the back-of-the-book blurb would read something like this:
"From Emily Dickinson, Master of Suspense, comes another thrilling poem about the world beyond. A young woman wakes up to find that she can't control her brain. A shadowy group known only as the "Lead Boots" has taken control of her most prized possession: her mind. Worse, they have decided to host a funeral…for her! Before it's over, she must voyage through the void to make it back to earth. Will she make it – or will she fall through the universe forever?"