Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Dickinson, like many of her contemporaries in the middle of the nineteenth century, was deeply concerned about the truth of the conventional Christianity taught and generally believed in her culture. Like that of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville, her religious questioning resulted in part from the general decline of the authority of Christianity in Western civilization. This decline had begun most visibly perhaps with the rise of rivals to the Roman Catholic Church’s secular power in nation-states and had continued through the splintering of that church in the Reformation, the intellectual and scientific critique of Christianity’s traditional interpretations of history and nature during the Enlightenment, the challenges to Christianity’s moral and political power in the American and French revolutions, and the spread of knowledge about powerful rival religious systems partly as a result of advancing world trade and communication.

Many of Dickinson’s poems are about the various problems of faith and doubt that would occur to a brilliant and imaginative mind in her culture. This poem is an attempt to pierce through the absolute barrier that stands between the poet and the life beyond death. It attempts to answer the question: What comes in the moment that follows death?

Dickinson places herself in the mind of a woman who has died. She relives the moment of death, trying to imagine it and the hoped-for illumination that should follow. She finds at the instant of death a clarity of perception that she tries to extend through that instant. Yet what her imagination provides at that crucial instant is the fly, which ends illumination and leaves the consciousness in utter darkness.

Nevertheless, consciousness remains. The voice speaks from beyond the grave, but all it can reveal is what its senses could apprehend before death, that instant when the senses ceased to operate. Beyond that is a blank, toward which the fly as a symbol points but about which it reveals nothing but questions: Who is the King? Is it death? Is it Christ? Is it something unimaginably terrifying, like Beelzebub? The fly ushers the poet across the threshold suggested by its “Blue—uncertain stumbling buzz.” The fly points the way, but the living cannot interpret its buzz, and her voice stops.