Skip to 0 minutes and 9 seconds ‘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, again, 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 -‘ So what’s going on?
Skip to 1 minute and 1 second I love Emily Dickinson, she brilliant, isn’t she? She is brilliant but she’s not always easy. She’s not always easy. It’s like a code, it’s like cracking a code. One of the things I love about this poem, one of the things that I love about Dickinson, is that she uses things that you can get your head around to articulate things you can’t. Or rather what she does is she’ll use an image like the image here of a funeral in this instance as an extended metaphor. Quite possibly for something else entirely. She uses a concrete image of the funeral to get something more abstract about human feelings.
Skip to 1 minute and 37 seconds And I think that she wrote a lot about death, and a lot about feelings, and a lot about different ways of experiencing feelings about death, I think, although there’s no gloss for her poems. There’s no, this is what I wrote about. So you have to go into this poem knowing a little bit about the culture in which she was writing. Where death was maybe more common and where funeral culture was more pronounced and perhaps had more distinct features such as drums and the like. But really what you do is you go and you try and unpick what it is she’s using the image of a funeral to say.
Skip to 2 minutes and 17 seconds And to my mind, when I taught this, I’ve taught this poem, and when I read it, you could understand it as various different types of suffering that she’s trying to pinpoint.
Skip to 2 minutes and 31 seconds But she uses the image of the funeral to get there. And it’s in her brain to start with. That’s the thing, is ‘I felt the funeral in my brain’ and I think it’s such a compelling image. She’s just genius at this. She’s absolutely brilliant at getting these. She puts words to something, or she finds words for something, that I’ve never heard anybody do in a way that I’ve never read elsewhere. And it’s so concise as well. ‘I felt a funeral in my brain’ and we will have to sit and think OK, what would that feel like? What does it feel like to have a funeral in your brain?
Skip to 3 minutes and 3 seconds And we all know what a funeral is, but obviously your funeral might be different to my funeral. So what she then does is she takes it, in the first two stanzas at least, it stays in the brain, this feeling. But she’s emphasising what it felt like and there’s this emphasis on the treading of the mourners back and forth. I find that fantastic.
Skip to 3 minutes and 23 seconds And then the beating of the drums. So it’s a very physical… Quite a noisy brain isn’t it. It’s a noisy brain. It’s a busy noisy brain, there’s a lot of to-ing and fro-ing It feels like people are stampeding, that they’re inside her head, and she’s trying to get the moment of silence isn’t she. Well I don’t know whether she’s seeking the silence or whether the silence just comes. That’s interesting that you say that. The way that I read it is that back and forth, that back and forth, and what’s important is that sense was breaking through. They kept treading and treading till it seemed that sense was breaking through.
Skip to 3 minutes and 54 seconds I think that when she uses the word sense there it sort of suggests sensation. Not as in good sense but as in the feeling breaking through into her brain, she’s experiencing that. But then there in the next stanza there’s a numbness she feels as though her mind is going numb. And I think that, to me, what she’s getting at, if we read it as a poem about the suffering of loss, which you can, I think you could do a convincing reading of it that way, she’s getting at the full, complete, and total sensory experience of that kind of shock, that kind of loss.
Skip to 4 minutes and 31 seconds So to begin with, it’s in her brain, and it’s like these people are colonising her brain, marching about to and fro. And the drums are beating and there’s that kind of emphatic repetition. She always uses dashes to reiterate this, the force of something drawing attention to that. Then there’s the numbness, but then it shifts to her soul, and this is what I love about her poetry. Because for her, my experience of reading her, is that she doesn’t make any kind of false separation between mind and body and soul and these things are all a part of oneness and human experience. So in the third stanza when they lift the box, the coffin, it creaks across her soul.
Skip to 5 minutes and 11 seconds Now again it’s like what would that feel like. What would it feel like if your soul was creaking. It’s kind of fascinating and fantastic image. But you know it would hurt, I think, or it would certainly be uncomfortable, that creaking, especially given the thing that’s creaking is the lifting of the coffin. The relationship between that image of the coffin and the verb creak. And the boots of lead, again, again, and then there’s the silence. And what you get after that is you get sound, you get space, tolling, or ringing, and all the heavens were a bell, and all of being is an ear. And you get this emphasis on the sense of hearing for that moment.
Skip to 5 minutes and 53 seconds So it’s gone from that physical sensory experience of thumping, and beating, and treading. And then you’ve got this one after the creaking of the soul, the emphasis on her ears, and then you’ve got the silence. I don’t read it as though she’s seeking the silence. I see it as though the silence is where she gets to. And it’s in silence that she’s wrecked and solitary. It’s there in that… it’s when those noises have stopped. Now it could be that the creaking across her, it could.. read it literally… and the box is now in the ground, or heading for the ground.
Skip to 6 minutes and 26 seconds And that moment of realisation is one of great shock and great isolation really, that silence is her on her own. Suddenly there’s no sound. Sort of sensory deprivation, a bit like the numbness.
Skip to 6 minutes and 41 seconds But then it goes from that kind of wrecked-ness of the silence, of the solitary. I find that really moving the idea that she’s on her own in this. She’s on her own. She’s on her own in this experience. And then I think this is an incredible last image. And you could read it in so many ways. You could read it as a nervous breakdown, well a nervous breakdown is just words we use to describe the bottom dropping out of who you are. For whatever reason, the bottom drops out. And I love the image she has there a plank in reason broke.
Skip to 7 minutes and 12 seconds It’s like all of my reason was balancing on this plank and the coffin goes over it or whatever happens the plank breaks and then it’s like I’m bottoming out. I’m quite interested in what sorts of fiction and literature people read when they’re feeling depressed or stressed or anxious or heartbroken or lonely. And for some people they’ve said actually the only person I can read is Emily Dickinson, Anne Sexton, and someone like that, because they are the only people that understand. Other people say I can’t because I can’t concentrate, but I can read PG Wodehouse, I can read something that is such a perfect ordered world. And I’m also very interested in rhythm.
Skip to 7 minutes and 57 seconds I just think rhythm, there’s a great comfort in rhythm. And you talked about her using dashes and she’s quite staccato with the physical sort of the appearance of her poems are very interesting. And what do you think about…
Skip to 8 minutes and 13 seconds I have a lot I want to say about that. What do I want to say? I want to say that her poems are brilliant because they’re short, they’re concise, and there are lots of poems and in fact about joy, you know. And they’re about moments. I think what’s so fascinating is she can write about a moment or a momentary experience or a fleeting experience. So she can write about the kind of slant of light in a room on an afternoon and you’re there for that moment but of course then the light will change. So in terms of whether she appeals to someone’s suffering or not I think it entirely depends. Her poems are difficult.
Skip to 8 minutes and 45 seconds So it’s quite alienating to have to untangle. That’s why courses are so great because they help you try and unpick what’s going on to crack that code. And once that code’s cracked there can be a great sense of relief like, ‘Oh, wow, yeah I do know how that feels, oh my god’. So for me, as a teacher again, she can be a great way in to accessing feelings that I want articulated or I think it’s important to articulate. I almost think I never intellectualise with her, I just let the feelings overtake me. I just don’t care about really knowing what they mean. And I think the thing about poetry, we don’t have to over-intellectualise, sometimes we just feel it. Yes.
Skip to 9 minutes and 26 seconds And I think just feeling it is important. That speaks to your point about rhythm and metre. And you know there’s actually quite strong structure to this poem. ‘I felt a funeral in my brain and mourners…’ [INTERPOSING VOICES] ‘…treading, treading, til it seems the sense is breaking through’. What she does do which I like, but perhaps you don’t want from one of her poems, is that she interrupts that rhythm. So her dashes, or her half rhymes, so you’ve got ‘to and fro’, and then ‘through’, so fro runs with through. Or at the end you’ve got ‘down’ and then ‘then’ you got these half rhymes, or these awkward rhymes which are jarring.
Skip to 10 minutes and 3 seconds And as a teacher of poetry I’m excited by that and interested in what that kind of does to the otherwise seamless experience or that tum-tee-tum rhythm. Because that’s where you know when you’re jarred by a sound. You’re brought up short. Oh, hang on, that doesn’t feel right. Often what we want and don’t get me wrong, my favourite thing to do is read trash magazines when I’m sad. There’s nothing wrong with it Absolutely There’s nothing wrong with it Things that are going to distract me, things that are funny, watch junky television, whatever it takes. but reading to mood or reading for different reasons or at different times then you can get a much deeper experience.
Skip to 10 minutes and 42 seconds And for me, again, this is a blessing of being a teacher, I have her poetry in my loo, but I wouldn’t be reading it on a daily basis, if it weren’t for that I teach it. And it’s by teaching it that I get to sit with it a bit and try and understand it in a bit more detail. And that I get transcendent sometimes. Experiences, emotional experiences, in response to a poem when teaching it. Or talking about it like we’re doing now, that I wouldn’t have got on my own, and that’s a really interesting aspect of poetry.
Skip to 11 minutes and 13 seconds That at some level is difficult or presents as difficult because if you can do it together with somebody, and if somebody can help you and you can talk it through and you can hear it and repeat it and listen to it again and unpack it and unpick it. Then that exhilaration that comes with a certain level of understanding, a different level of understanding, to that intuitive goose bumpy initial connected-ness to rhythm and sound. Like when we listen to music and we just feel it. Poetry works at that level and then it can work at this other level as well.
Skip to 11 minutes and 44 seconds And I think picking and mixing when you want to respond to it and how you want to respond to it can be extremely nourishing, actually. It’s that flicker of recognition or alienation. It’s like, ‘oh, what does it mean’. For me it’s a recognition. But I couldn’t tell you what it was. I couldn’t find other ways of describing it, because that’s perfect isn’t it. Whatever it is, that’s when she says as she starts another poem something like, ‘Bandaging my soul’. Sometimes the soul has days when it needs bandaging, something like that. And you’re just like, oh. The image just arrests, it’s so resting It’s that thing that she does of taking the every day, actually.
Skip to 12 minutes and 26 seconds The everyday experience of a funeral, which in fact is quite every day and certainly was more every day in a sense when she was writing. And then making it, using it, something easily visualisable, or easily identifiable to a reader, and then using that same image to get to some experience of the interior world. That’s so hard to give language to. And like, you say, it’s difficult to understand. We don’t even really need to understand. Which I’m just glad she wrote it down, because I can have a flicker of recognition.
Discussing poetry and bereavement with Lucy Clarke
In the final video of the week, we discuss Emily Dickinson’s poem ‘I felt a Funeral, in my Brain’, read here by Lucy Clarke.
Lucy helps us to unpick Dickinson’s strange and arresting poem, offering an interpretation of the poem as an exploration of the full sensory experience of loss.
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, again,
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 -
Emily Dickinson (1830–1886)
THE POEMS OF EMILY DICKINSON: READING EDITION, edited by Ralph W. Franklin, Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Copyright © 1998, 1999 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Copyright © 1951, 1955 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Copyright © renewed 1979, 1983 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Copyright © 1914, 1918, 1919, 1924, 1929, 1930, 1932, 1935, 1937, 1942 by Martha Dickinson Bianchi. Copyright © 1952, 1957, 1958, 1963, 1965 by Mary L. Hampson.
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