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Thursday
Feb282008

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain

    300px-Black-white_photograph_of_Emily_Dickinson.jpgI 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

A friend of mine once lamented signing up for an entire semestral course on the works of this famous poetess (or simply female poet, as some consider the suffix to be as sexist as the tail of a long ballroom gown).  Yet he lamented this choice not because of the work itself, nor owing to the narrowness of the scope that it covered, the inevitable repetitions that a poet, dying young, are likely to incur.  I cannot really comment on the repetitions, having read only about a hundred of her poems; but from what I have absorbed, a tempting conclusion presents itself that may not please all her admirers or detractors: the repetition of which my friend spoke might not be a product of young age (Dickinson was fifty–five at her death), but a result of a lack of interaction with a wide public.  Now there is the old chestnut about real writing taking place in the mind and being betrayed by the page, and that many great writers have never published a word.  This is an acceptable premise, and I think every writer will tell you he has much greater success in conceptualizing his thoughts than reflecting them on pale parchment.  Dickinson barely published anything during her lifetime (research reveals only a dozen non–posthumous poems), which would be fine if she were writing about the Peloponnesian war or Boethius.  These were not, however, her subjects; her one and only subject was something perhaps far richer: the tapestries and whirlwinds of her soul, as in the unfinished poem above.

In our modern times, there is more than a mild impetus to foist psychological problems on an artist whose turbulent inner life has been a playground for critics since the publication of an authoritative collection of her work over fifty years ago.  I will not belabor the matter; nor is it, I may add, of any importance.  Few eager psychotherapists would ever tell you that many rational persons (especially those of extraordinary imagination who secretly try their hand at every possible internal experience) allow themselves during more pensive periods, or perhaps even to get to sleep, to think of themselves in wholly altered states.  Death being the most altered state (or "not a human experience," as a second-rate philosopher famously quipped), thought first drifts beyond this life.  Out of pride, love, or simply out of longing, we then tend to picture our mourning by those we have loved and, more fantastically, those we have yet to love.  But there is another, even more capricious leap to be made: the condition in which the artist is dead because she can no longer create. From those outside her soul, even those tenderly loved, this death may not be immediately, if at all, obvious.  But as soon as this death is confirmed by the artist, then everything and everyone seem to be participating in a large funeral march, the slow progression to death that becomes increasingly unbearable and heavy as if the artist were being pushed lower and lower into the ground, buried beneath thousands of other forgotten souls.  

Dickinson’s initial humility yields an even more remarkable impact.  She is willing to endure almost three stanzas of what may be loosely termed hackneyed imagery just to make us believe this is but another self–important writer fantasizing about the tragedy of her demise.  But she pastes a mystifying end to the third stanza, “then Space – began to toll,” and we see things a little differently.  This line is followed by one of the finest stanzas in American poetry: the heavens, the wild paradise of the artistic soul, are forevermore the monotone peal of a bell; her being, her artistic essence, is only a passive ear so that she may observe but not create (an artist’s true prison); she and silence are cellmates, ethnic pariahs from the world of life and language; finally, being unable to do anything creative she is alone for all eternity — only the dead remain grouped in endless multitudes —and the saltations of her poem are complete.

There is also the matter of the comma in the title and first line.  Dickinson’s punctuation, a subject of much scholarly analysis, can be described at best as idiosyncratic, but the comma (not included in every citation of the poem) certainly does alter the sense.  The spongy realness of the word brain, as opposed to mind or soul, make any sort of feeling inherently physical and inferior to the abstract ecstasies of the human intellect.  But “I felt a funeral,” as oddly as the line rolls off the tongue, has in it undeniable poetic appeal.  There is something Viking and epic about this presentiment, the smell of war or battle or Valkyries finding warriors strewn like slugs over a shore of pebbles and carnage.  A grand and tragic end to a queendom of lyric beauty left almost entirely to the whims of history.

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