This poem has always had different variants of interpretation: some critics say that Emily Dickinson wanted to show a funeral as a philosophical vision of human's life (Cameron 1979, Cameron 1992) or the process of getting free (Ford 1997); others think that a funeral is a metaphor of the speaker's descent into madness (Wolff 1988) or reaction to the great stress or dread (Bennett 1986).
Cameron writes that the speaker's speech is grammatically past tense, which makes it also, so to say, emotionally past tense ("Lyric Time" 89). Wolff thinks that what is really important, that we are able to understand true values of life only from the position of death ("Emily Dickinson" 113).
Wolff pays our attention to the fact that there are no distinct "others" (except for mourners), nothing but a lone speaker. No information about life of the deceased can be gathered from this funeral, the mourners are silent - they are just muffled figures, who move constantly "to and fro", the poet repeats - "treading - treading". The only sound during the funeral service is the relentless "beating - beating" (again repetition) of the toneless "Drum", no other instruments are heard ("Emily Dickinson" 112).
However, the regularized process of the funeral is contrasted to the confused feelings and thoughts of the speaker, she is using inappropraiate combinations of words: "the funeral is "felt"; the "Mind" becomes "numb"; the coffin is lifted "across" the soul; "being" is reduced to "an Ear", speaker and "Silence" become members of the same "strange Race" of creatures" (Wolff 112). Thus two lines of the poem, the familiar order of ritual and the mixed feelings used to define the speaker's existence, function to balance each other.
Wolff stresses the importance of time, which is another distinct line in the poem. And whereas succession of the funeral and the disorder of the speaker's mind are conveyed explicitly, time's indifferent cruelty is delivered less directly - through absences and through syntactic and rhythmic structures. Immutable clock-time is conveyed grammatically. There is virtually no syntactic subordination in this poem; the few instances are either hypothetical ("As if") or, more commonly, temporal ("till ... when ... till ... then ... then ... then"). The insistent beat of "when" and "then" is intensifying the tattoo of ticking time. It becomes more insistent with each stanza and climaxes with the thumping of and that is concentrated in the fifth stanza ("And ... And ... And ... And") ("Emily Dickinson" 112).
We can look at the poem from the point of view of the speaker's dying either physically or mentally - that is not of fundamental importance. We can interpret the same images differently.
We may suppose, that the speaker experiences the loss of self in the chaos of the unconscious or non-existence. Dickinson uses the metaphor of a funeral to represent the speaker's sense that a part of her is dying. The fact that the the speaker is both observer of the funeral and its participant, indicates that the self is divided, logically, by the end of the poem, the self shatters into pieces.
On the other hand, we can think, that the mental state the speaker describes is like being buried alive: "the heightened awareness of sounds (treading, beating, creaking, tolling) and the sense of enclosure ("in my Brain," they all were seated," "a ...
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