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I felt a funeral in my brain,
And mourners, to and fro,
Kept treading, treading, till it seemed
That sense was breaking through.
And when they all were seated,
A service like a drum
Kept beating, beating, till I thought
My mind was going numb.
And then I heard them lift a box,
And creak across my soul
With those same boots of lead,
Then space began to toll
As all the heavens were a bell,
And Being but an ear,
And I and silence some strange race,
Wrecked, solitary, here.
And then a plank in reason, broke,
And I dropped down and down--
And hit a world at every plunge,
And finished knowing--then--
Here’s a poem by Emily Dickinson that might interest you. It supposedly describes her/a descent into madness (widely debated as to whether or not she was actually psychotic for a time). Emily is always trickier to “get” than most people think from reading her birds and flowers poems, this being one of the more difficult ones. Starting at stanza 1, I read “funeral” as “disturbance” or “breakdown” if you will, some sort of mental anguish or ending, and “sense” as rationality or reason, sanity, that is. So the first stanza seems to me to be saying that she/the narrator (not necessarily Emily, as one forgets) felt that there was a “fatal disturbance” in her brain, ie something dire wrong with it, and that “mourners” or the agent(s) of the disturbance -- anxiety, worries, symptoms of any and all sorts -- kept yanging and yanging ("treading, treading"...and treading and treading) until it felt as if she was going insane, felt that sanity was breaking through her brain -- see last stanza -- and being lost.
Finally the treading stopped but the pounding drum started until her mind felt totally numb, so that she had neither thought, reason, nor feelings. What was the drum? Her heart beating? The sound of the blood rushing into her ears? And the service, a funeral service surely. But why? To commemorate her? Why then the awful pounding? More like a judge and jury...Or a stern pastor throwing the Book of Judgment at her (Emily was known to have refused to become a true believer).
Then, as the insanity progressed, her mind began truly to die, as the figure of a coffin and boots of lead creaking "across my soul" and space beginning to toll - death knell - suggest (all figurative, nothing literal or specific). The picture is of pall bearers carrying a coffin across a creaky wooden floor while the whole of the space begins to vibrate with sound. But then we realize we are actually situated inside Emily's skull, in her brain, and understand the figure is a metaphor for the same "brain death" or madness she fears.
In the fourth stanza, the death knell rings in space as if all the heavens were a bell and "Being but an ear". What is this? A being is only an ear to hear the bell? Or Emily is but an ear? Or is it that the heavens are actually an ear and not a bell? Difficult to know how to read that line. But in any event, she and silence, “some strange race,” alien to Being and to the heavens, is left here, “wrecked (and) solitary.” A vivid and accurate image of how awful you feel in madness: wrecked, destroyed, pulverized yet alone.
FINALLY, as the last blow, the last floorboard of her brain breaks through (some say the "plank" is over a precipice, and she is on it, but I think this figure hearkens back to the mourners “treading” and “sense breaking through”). She, that is, her sanity, herself, is on the plank, and down she drops, descending as they say, into complete madness or decompensation...She drops down and down, and "hit a world at every plunge." This makes me think that she would hit a "world" and stop, then fall again, and hit and stop, then plunge again. Not sure what the "worlds" she hits are...Memories? Episodes in her past that make up whole worlds? I feel this in any event, this plunging and hitting, plunging and hitting. I feel myself strike my face as I fall on it each time, hit my head, then plummet again into the darkness. It feels terrifying, just terrifying...
And "finished knowing -- then--"...She is essentially dropped into a world of such insanity that she doesn’t know her own or old self, is unconscious, senseless, and completely mad. She has finished knowing could also imply though that she has no more rationality but only emotionality, that this is how she must approach the world from now on, from her feelings... Welp...Anyhow, finally the “—then—” , that unfinished sentence with the incomplete punctuation suggests that the madness hasn’t ended when the poem was written, even though the word "then" implies that it is in the past. Sort of leaves it up in the air: Is she or isn't she?
This is my analysis of the poem. Interested in another's take on it, I sent a version of it to Kate K, who graciously wrote out her own analysis. She did such a terrific job that I want to publish it here, without getting her permission first. (Forgive me Kate, but you didn't answer my e-mail fast enough!!!) BD
The more I read this poem, the more I appreciate it.
First stanza: The poet writing " I felt a funeral in my brain" is like saying "I felt a death in my brain" but who are the mourners? Parts of herself that tread so restlessly as to make sense break through her brain, somewhere out of reach?
Second stanza: There is no respite, the mourners (parts of her own mind) settle down but then there begins " A service like a drum". There is no preacher, no sermon, no words, no sense, just the throbbing of a drum. A drum so insistent that her mind goes numb. The image/sound of a drum makes me think of Native Americans, a more primitive, sacred ritual than a Christian church service which would more likely employ an organ with complex music. A drum also makes me think of a heart beat, but here instead of the heart dying (its last beats heard before the silence), it's the brain dying by going numb.
Third stanza: "And then I heard them lift a box" which probably represents the coffin or what is holding the brain (mind). "And creak across my soul" Does the box creak or is it the mourners who creak, the mourners who are like an elaboration on the coffin? Something which still holds her soul. The image of the leaden boots recalls the "treading, treading" as well as the "beating, beating", repetitious and implacable. Lead also makes me think of bullets, something potentially violent and death inducing. "Then space began to toll"-- Does she mean, then space began to take its toll, to cause more damage? The mourners recede and the empty space comes forward, stripping her mind.
Fourth stanza: "As all the heavens were a bell," So the bell tolls as you said like a death knell, a mournful sound but heaven is a bell, joyful music "And Being but an ear" and people are the receivers of the music of heaven. " And I and silence some strange race" She, with her dying/disturbed brain is now part of the silence and space of a kind of hell. She is now part of "some strange race" and no longer connected to heaven. She is outside of heaven. "Wrecked, solitary, here." I found two pertinent definitions of wrecked from the computer dictionary: "1. the disorganized remains of something that has suffered damage or destruction. 2. a person whose physical or mental health or strength has failed." Both imply a breakdown of matter and spirit. And in being a wreck she becomes useless and solitary, again a reference to the absence of heaven which is union with the divine. She says she is "here" but in the state she's in here, in the absence of heaven is a kind of hell or at least limbo, empty and undefined, a kind of prison.
Fifth stanza: "And then a plank in reason, broke"--back to wood, the mourners treading on wood, the box (coffin) made of wood, and then a piece of reason "broke" making the floor of reason no longer serviceable, no longer able to hold the weight of her mind. Plank also means: "2. a fundamental point of a political or other program." So plank can be seen as not just a physical representation of reason but a point of reason that breaks (down). "And I dropped down and down--" The floorboards of reason, of the funeral home break and her soul drops down and down, again break-down, to fall, to lose one's reason, to fall from grace into limbo or hell. "And hit a world at every plunge." She does not write "hit the world" but "a world" as if she's falling down through a series of worlds and not just falling but plunging, which is much more dire. "And finished knowing--then--" And that was the end of her mind, her brain, the final descent into death, into ending, she "finished knowing", all goes blank "then--" I think she leaves the then--open-ended intentionally, leaving open the idea of life after the death of the brain as well as that is probably how most of us end, in almost mid-sentence, abrubtly.
Excellent choice of poem Pam. I had fun with this. My perspective on mental illness is different from Emily Dickinson's in that I don't see it as a form of death, a death that blocks out all light and sound (heaven) but more as a hyper/distorted state of being, especially paranoia. It's not too little I received when I was most psychotic, but too much, an overload of images and ideas and voices causing pain and confusion. To me it was, in part, a form of torture. I was not numb but all too aware. The numbness came later after the trauma. Now I am more numb and, not surprisingly, in less pain, less crazy though still weird in some of my thoughts. Emily Dickinson's take on mental illness is so final, with no sight of a reprieve whereas I think in most mental illness there is some hope, even if it's just a sliver. Not always, I've had my share of hopeless times when I wanted to cease living to end the pain I was feeling but usually there was something to hold onto. What do you think?
Hmmm, what do I think? I think that Emily wasn't numb at all, but tortured and tormented just as we all have been. She thought her mind was going numb, that is that it was being dulled into submission by the pounding of the drum. But in fact everything after that suggests that it did not go numb. As I said, that hitting a world with every plunge image is so painful for me that I cannot help but think that she was suffering immensely. Someone who is numb doesn't care and wouldn't notice if she were "some strange race" or "wrecked, solitary, here." She might even welcome it. As for the finality of her vision of "mental illness" or madness, for one thing, in her day it was in fact often hopeless: there was neither cure NOR treatment of any sort of efficacy. If she'd known someone who was mad, and it is more than likely she had, since if there were hospitals for the insane then, no one wanted their relatives there, in those horrendous conditions, she grew up with the reality of the madwoman in the attic, the addled relative who lived all his or her life at home, being cared for by family.
I myself have OFTEN felt a finality with this illness, and way too often have tried to end it. I have lost hope for myself many times, and have had to rely on others' hope or on forcible measures -- hospitals -- to keep me safe until hope is restored. So I can appreciate the lack thereof in this poem. It is not easy to keep hope alive when you are psychotic, not for me, not as many times as I have relapsed. I have often felt that were it to happen one more time, that would be it, I would be "outta here" for good. But of course, that was the relapse itself speaking, which is what made it doubly dangerous. Hope is best, naturally, and essential, if you can hold on to it; I'm just saying that not everyone can all the time.
If anyone would like to add their 2¢ or 10$ to this discussion, either on the poem itself or on the presence or absence of hope in MI -- do you think it is always there or not -- please add your comments. You self-conscious, shy and lacking in self-esteem readers, puleeze! Remember that I think I'm pondscum too...so if I can put myself out here like this, with negative self-esteem, why can't you? Has ANYONE ever jumped on a commenter here for saying something, anything at all? I promise that if anyone ever flames someone, or even comments derisively about another person, I will delete that comment immediately! So c'mon, you guys, screw up your nerve (am I that scary???) and take the plunge. You might even find it is fun, telling us what you think!Posted by pamwagg at November 23, 2006 04:42 PM