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Emily Dickinson wrote more than 500 poems on the subject of death, and this is one of her greatest. In "I heard a Fly buzz--", as in another of her famous poems “Because I could not stop for Death,” Dickinson imagines the actual experience of death through the words of a speaker who has died. This speaker is looking back on the moment of death and recalling just what the experience was like. As the poem opens, the room is hushed (line 2: “The Stillness in the Room”). The dying woman’s close friends and relatives gather around: a deathbed scene, harkening to a time when people more often died at home than in a hospital. People have been crying, but as the moment of death approaches, some of them have cried themselves out (line 5: “had wrung them dry”) and are holding their breath in anticipation of the momentous occasion. The woman has already taken care of her major property but is bequeathing smaller items (line 9: “Keepsakes—signed away”) to her loved ones. That’s when the fly appears, interposing itself between the woman and her surroundings (lines 11-12: “and then it was / There interposed a fly—“).
The poem’s power comes from the irony of the contrast between the expected, in this case the momentous coming of death versus. actual ordinary cessation of senses. In lines 7 and 8, all are waiting for “that last Onset” and the moment when “the King / Be witnessed.” Instead of a majestical King, the woman witnesses as her final sensory experience only a common housefly. It has been said that hearing is the last physical sense to go and that is the case with this speaker. As the room goes dark, she cannot “see to see,” but her final awareness is of the buzzing of the fly. The onomatopoeia is very effective: “buzz” in line 1; then repeated with a capital letter, “Buzz,” in line 13 and rhyming with “was” from line 10. Even more powerful is the interplay of imagery and consonance in line 13 (“With Blue—uncertain stumbling Buzz”) to emphasize the color, motion and sound of that pervasive fly. Some readers will also see the fly as the symbol of death, again in contrast with the King. The symbol of death is not majestical or grand as the King would be; it is ordinary and even repulsive as the sense of life fades away to nothing.
This excellent poem by Emily Dickinson represents another of her poems focusing on the topic of death. However, in this poem, unlike others that present death in a momentous or terrifying way, death is presented ironically, as the speaker describes her own death as others wait for death to come to her. She is giving away her last possessions when a fly moves itself to block her sight, and death claims her.
There is an intense irony between the expectations of those with the speaker, awaiting her death, and the way that death actually arrives. Note how the second stanza presents the expectation of those around:
The Eyes around--had wrung them dry--
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset--when the King
Be witnessed--in the Room--
Death is imagined to be this wonderful revelation of God, the "King" in the room itself as he comes to claim the soul of the speaker. Note the way that expectations are raised with the "Breaths" of the audience being described as "gathering firm" in eager anticipation for what is described as the "Onset." How ironic, then, that instead of a miraculous divine appearance, the last sight of the speaker is a fly--an insect that is associated with decomposing flesh--that blocks the light from the window. The move from the solemn tone that is created in the first two stanzas to the rather ironic mood of the final stanza reflects the way that Dickinson is poking fun at the supposed portentousness of death. The sheer ordinary nature of the speaker's death stands in contrast to the way that so many people expect the deathbed scene to be fraught with horror or divine revelation.
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