Breakdown in Emily Dickinsons Poem 280

Seminar Paper, 1995
10 Pages, Grade: 1 (A)


Table of Contents


1. Situations of the Narrator

2. Physical and Psychological Interpretations

3. Consequences of the Breakdown

4. Poetical Language




In this paper I will discuss the mental breakdown and its consequences on the lyri­cal self in Emily Dickinson's poem #280. Since it is not obvious what the poem describes, I will first examine the incidents told by the narrator and argue that she[1] describes her own breakdown. I will show this by investigating the changing situations of the speaker, which symbolize her gradual loss of sanity. Then I will argue against critics who see poem #280 as a description of a physical breakdown and show that Dickinson uses physical images to de­scribe psychological incidents. Having shown that the lyrical self narrates her mental breakdown, I shall examine its consequences. The narrator not only loses her sanity, but gains a new kind of perception beyond reason. The last chap­ter will investigate how the poetical language of the poem mirrors this new perception by giving each word a new meaning. Finally, I will conclude by show­ing that poem #280 describes a mental breakdown and its con­sequences on the speaker.

1. Situations of the Narrator

The changing situations of the narrator in the poem mirror her gradual loss of reason. It is therefore important to examine the three different situations of the speaker by analysing her views of the funeral. The first two stanzas show that the incidents described in the poem take place inside the narrator. The funeral service actually originates in the narrator's brain. Yet, the funeral is not created by thought or imagination or a dream, but is "felt". It takes place in the brain, it has its effects on the brain, but the brain is also observing and reflecting upon the actions. This is very clear in the first two stan­zas. The first three lines of both stanzas describe the action of the mourners at the funeral; the last word of line 3 and 7, "seemed" and "thought", indicate the re­flective action of the brain, and lines 4 and 8 show the effects of the actions on the narrator‘s mind. In those first two stanzas, the action very clearly takes place inside the nar­rator‘s head. This is the speaker's primary view.

In lines 9 to 11, however, the view changes slightly. The creaking of the "Boots of Lead" is no longer "felt" but "heard", which implies a certain distance of the narrator to the sounds. Furthermore, the creaking does not have an immediate effect on the brain or "Soul", or rather, the con­sequen­ces of this negative ex­perience are not described. So it seems as if the reflective and the afflicted part of the brain separated from the part where the incidents take place.

With line 12, there is another, more radical change of view[2]. In lines 12 to 16, the "I" is opposite "Space", which is compared to a bell. The image of the fu­neral becomes less concrete; the bell is only used to describe the tolling space, whereas the mourners‘ steps and the box clearly refer to the funeral service. This tolling space affects not only the brain, sense, mind or soul, but the whole "I", which is, together with "Silence", "Wrecked, solitary, here -". Therefore the spea­ker is no longer split, but has entered, as persona, the scene inside her head. This becomes obvious in the last stanza, where the speaker participates in the funeral scene. She is standing on a "Plank" of "Reason", which breaks. This leads to her fall. This fall, which is a symbol for the breakdown, can only take place in the last phase of the speaker's loss of sanity, when she is living in the world she created on her own. So the different views of the narrator in poem #280 illustrate the entering of the lyrical self into an imagined individual reality.

2. Physical and Psychological Interpretations

As I have said in chapter one, the incidents described in poem #280 originate in the speaker‘s brain. They are therefore psychological incidents. However, the sensations of the speaker seem physically painful. The "treading - tread­ing" mourners and the "beating - beating" service seem to hammer on her head.[3] It‘s almost as if a headache was described. This has led to inter­pretations which regard the poem as a de­scrip­tion of physical incidents. For Farr, poem #280 is about fainting:

"Thus "treading - treading" and "beating - beating," the numb mind and the boots of lead, suggest the throbbing and dizziness that announce a fainting spell, while the lines "I dropped down, and down - / And hit a World, at every plunge" convey the reality of sinking out of consciousness and, indeed, to the ground." (91)

Considering the importance of abstract nouns like brain, sense, mind, soul or reason and the changing views of the speaker discussed in chapter one, I do not agree with Farr‘s thesis. The poem is actually about the breakdown of senses, but not of the five senses. It is rather a break­down of sense meaning sanity, as Griffith states:


[1] Referring to the speaker of the poem, I use female pronouns. However, this does not mean that the speaker should be identified with Emily Dickinson herself.

2 A division between lines 11 and 12 is supported by the half-rhyme "toll" -"Bell" and the fact that the metaphor in line 11 is extended and modified by line 12. The latter phenomenon elsewhere only occurs within a stanza.

[3] The rhythm and the sounds of the poem (most of all the several /t/-sounds) reinforce this physical image.

Excerpt out of 10 pages


Breakdown in Emily Dickinsons Poem 280
University of Zurich  (English Seminar)
Introduction to Literature Part 2
1 (A)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
386 KB
Analysis of Dickinson's "I Felt a Funeral in My Brain."
Breakdown, Emily, Dickinsons, Poem, Introduction, Literature, Part
Quote paper
Mag. Markus Widmer (Author), 1995, Breakdown in Emily Dickinsons Poem 280, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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