Emily Dickinson did not give titles to most of her poems. They are usually labeled by their first lines, and her modern editor, Thomas H. Johnson, has numbered them according to his conclusions about their order of composition (this poem is numbered 465). Publications of the poem before Johnson’s The Poems of Emily Dickinson (1955) are usually of the text as it was altered by Mabel Loomis Todd when she published Poems: Third Series (1896).
“I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—” consists of four stanzas, with Dickinson’s characteristic slant-or near-rhymes in the second and fourth lines of each quatrain. The first-person speaker of the poem is at some remove from Dickinson’s lyric voice; these words come from beyond the grave. Dickinson wrote a number of poems from this point of view; perhaps the most famous is “Because I could not stop for Death—” (poem 712). This subject held a particular fascination for Dickinson, in part because she was interested in resolving religious doubts about life continuing after death. In this poem, the dead speaker looks back at the moment of death.
After announcing that she heard a fly buzz when she died, the speaker describes the moments that led up to this event. The first stanza describes the silence of the room before she died as like the quiet between two phases of a storm. The second stanza describes the people present at the deathbed. They are also quiet, exhausted from their watch and preparing now for the final loss. In the third stanza, she says she had just made her last wishes known when the fly “interposed.” The last two lines of this stanza begin the long sentence that continues through the final stanza. This sentence describes how the fly seemed to blot out the light, and then all light ceased, leaving her conscious but utterly blinded.
The poem announces at the outset that sound will be important. The middle of the poem emphasizes the silence as temporary, as a fragile period between storms of suffering and weeping. The end of the poem returns to the sound of the fly’s buzz, seemingly quiet and inconsequential, not a storm at all and yet marking indelibly the momentous instant of transition.