Friday, November 18, 2011

Poem #280

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 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--

The poem's narrative voice does not have a definite identity. The verses sound like ongoing thoughts rattling around inside of the speaker's mind. A base reading of poem #280 suggests to readers that the speaker is recounting memories of a funeral they attended. However the poem can also be read as describing the figurative death of the speaker's sanity.

The poem's structure and sound patterns emphasize the narrative voice's mental instability. The first four stanzas employ the same rhyme scheme: abcb. The last stanza interrupts this pattern by following no evident rhyme scheme. Readers pay special attention to this final stanza because the former rhythm is gone. Perhaps this break from the predictable pattern represents the speaker's departure from reason.
Dickinson employs her trademark caesura throughout the poem. Her use of hyphens and commas gives the poem an irregular, frenzied beat that intensifies the chaos evident within the speaker's thoughts. Repetition is also prevalent. The phrases "treading--treading" and "beating--beating" suggest the speaker is thinking in circles and has difficulty logically progressing with his/her ideas.

There are a few examples of figurative language apparent in poem #280. Dickinson employs simile in the line "A Service, like a Drum--" and metaphor in the line "As all the Heavens were a Bell." She creates a synechdoche by substituting the speaker for the speaker's ear. Alliteration is present in the phrase "Silence, some strange Race."

The speaker of the poem describes a funeral for his/her sanity. "Mourners" are perhaps what remains of the speaker's rationality; these logical thoughts pace through the speaker's conscience and mourn the loss of reason. These thoughts almost alert the speaker to his/her impaired mental state - "till it seemed that Sense was breaking through" - but do not succeed.
All rational thoughts are "seated" or stilled within the speaker's mind. There are no protests now and the speaker experiences a "Service, like a Drum" - rhythmic words that pound through the speaker's mind until it goes numb. This beat is likely an auditory hallucination.
The third stanza depicts a "Box" being carried across the speaker's soul. The funeral metaphor suggests the box is a coffin containing the speaker's sanity. The speaker's soul can feel the loss of his/her sound mind as the box "creaks across." The phrase "Boots of Lead" posits the notion that the speaker's sanity is being taken forcefully. The words "same" and "again" imply that the speaker has a history of mental troubles.
The speaker is alone and "wrecked" within a mental hell. He/she looks to the Heavens for redemption but does not hear the "Bell" that would bring solace. Rather, the speaker is racing silence to some unknown conclusion.
The final stanza describes the speaker's breaking point. The Plank of Reason that has supported the narrative voice snaps and the speaker's lucidity is lost. He/she tumbles through "Worlds" - different perspectives of life - until the speaker's conscious thoughts are lost in translation.

Personal Thoughts:

This poem reminds me of times I've been possessed by a train of thought that is painful for me to consider but impossible to ignore. My thoughts lose their complexity as a central thought expresses itself; that single thought turns into a chant until I exhaust myself thinking about whatever miserable tangent I've stumbled upon. Ironically enough death is a concept that terrifies me if I allow myself to ask questions about it. Reading this poem makes me wonder where mental instability stems from. I think that people who are alone with their thoughts for too long are more likely to become insane. Maybe everyone has the potential to lose their sanity.


  1. I'm so ill with you. You had to go and be amazing and whatnot with your analysis. Mine is a third of the length of yours. But moving on about how much better you are than me.

    I enjoyed reading this poem, and I agree with your thoughts that this could be a description of the death of the speaker's sanity. So kudos to you, oh wise one.

  2. In the fourth stanza, Dickinson says that she is wrecked with silence in a place that she refers to as simply "here." Where is she? She must be far away from the heavens, which she described as a bell? Is she basically saying that she is in a mental hell?

  3. Oh Abow, much thanks! I'll be making my way over to your blog (with a burning love inside) shortly and will likely snap new calluses onto my fingers.

    Howard I like that train of thought. I read "here" as inside of the speaker's thoughts. I imagined the speaker as being stranded inside of herself and unable to make sense of her thoughts or control them. Mental hell sums that up nicely; I think I shall add it to the analysis!