Study Guide

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain Themes

By Emily Dickinson

  • Mortality

    "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain," like many of the Dickinson's poems, deals with the subject of death. In particular, she likes to deal with the subject of the moment of death and burial. For example, check out her poems "I died for Beauty – but was scarce" or Shmoop's analysis of "I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –". It seems that Dickinson was either afraid of death, or really curious about it, or maybe a mix of both. She seemed to believe that people went through death-like experiences throughout their lives. One of the central questions in this poem is whether death is a metaphor for some other experience.

    Questions About Mortality

    1. How is it possible to "feel" a funeral? Usually even people who attend real funerals don't "feel" them.
    2. Is the speaker narrating her own funeral? Have you ever imagined your own funeral in her head – you know, to see who would show up?
    3. Does the speaker die at the end of the poem? What do you think the phrase "finished knowing" means?
    4. The experience of having a funeral in one's brain is clearly a bad thing. But is the speaker actually afraid of death?

    Chew on This

    The poem is written from the perspective of a dead person in a casket, and every detail of the poem can be explained along these lines.

  • Versions of Reality

    "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain" comes about as close to a dream as possible without the poet announcing, "This is a dream I had." The setting shifts with no warning, and the story of the funeral hangs together very loosely. The whole scene takes place inside the speaker's brain, mind, or soul – we're not sure which, or whether these are all the same thing. Her mind is a huge, cavernous place that contains entire worlds. The end of the poem reads like someone waking up from a dream. On top of all that, we're not sure whether the speaker is living or dead. She might be narrating the poem from inside a coffin.

    Questions About Versions of Reality

    1. How does the use of capital letters change our view of the reality of the things and spaces she describes?
    2. How does Dickinson create different kinds of physical spaces in this poem?
    3. How do you picture the setting of the poem? Does your imagination add any details that aren't actually in the poem?
    4. How is the poem like a dream? How is it not?

    Chew on This

    In the world of Dickinson's poem, the mind is a microcosm of the universe as a whole.

  • Suffering

    The suffering in "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain" is passive. The speaker doesn't seek out a traumatic experience or bring one upon itself. She seems to remain in the same location throughout the poem, until the floor breaks beneath her. It's not clear that she does anything at all. Rather, things are done to her. Specifically, noise. People walk on her, and then she hears a loud drumbeat until she goes numb. Even after going numb, she seems capable of hearing and feeling things. Some readers think that "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain" is about depression.

    Questions About Suffering

    1. Could this poem be explained merely as a really bad headache? Don't laugh – we're serious!
    2. Why does the speaker repeat words like "treading" and "beating"? Do they necessarily imply suffering?
    3. Why do you think she is so powerless and passive in the face of her suffering?
    4. Does the speaker have the ability to move? Does she even have a body?

    Chew on This

    The "treading" and "beating" that the speaker experiences is the pulsing of her own heart.

  • Religion

    You'd think that in a poem about a funeral, the dead person would do the haunting. But in "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain," religion – specifically New England Protestantism – does the haunting. Not literally, of course. But the religious service in this poem is anything but a source of peace and comfort. Religion keeps invading on her space. Although church is supposed to bring a sense of community into one's life, the speaker of this poem feels isolated and abandoned.

    Questions About Religion

    1. Does religion have a place in this poem, or does Dickinson just adapt religious symbols to suit her own purposes?
    2. What religious element is most important in this poem: doctrine or ritual?
    3. Does the poem take a stand on the question of the eternality of the soul?
    4. Is religion portrayed negatively in this poem? If so, how and where?

    Chew on This

    "I felt a Funeral, in my Brain" is not about traditional religion. Dickinson treats the funeral as a secular ritual.