I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—

by Emily Dickinson

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What is the rhythm of "I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—"?

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This pattern that other editors have identified—one line in iambic tetrameter (four feet, each having one unaccented syllable followed by one accented syllable), followed by one line in iambic trimeter (three feet, each having one unaccented syllable followed by one accented syllable)—is actually referred to as Common Meter. Common Meter, as a rule, retains iambic strictness; there is no irregularity, and so it can sound very formal and even straightforward and simple.

Common meter is the rhythm used in the hymn "Amazing Grace," and one can actually even sing this poem to the tune of "Amazing Grace"; if you do this, you'll see how the rhythms of the two texts perfectly align. Dickinson plays a little bit with this structure, as it is typical for there to be end rhyme in lines 1 and 3 of each stanza as well as in lines 2 and 4. She does not employ perfect rhymes—though there are often other sound similarities at the ends of lines—until the final stanza. There, she rhymes the final word of line 2, "me," with the final word of line 4, "see," giving the poem a sense of closure that it has lacked up until now as a result of her refusal to use perfect rhymes despite her embrace of perfect meter.

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Throughout this entire poem, Dickinson uses iambic rhythm. The iambic rhythm uses an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, and it is a fairly common poetry rhythm. That unstressed/stressed rhythm is then repeated throughout each and every line in the entire poem. Let's use the first line of the second stanza as an example. I'll use bold for the stressed syllables.

The Eyes / around /- had wrung / them dry -

Notice that there are four iambic units in the previous line, giving the line a total of 8 syllables. Four pieces of the iambic foot give this line the rhythm and meter known as iambic tetrameter; however, Dickinson mixes up the poem. She sticks with the same rhythm, but she changes the meter. Each stanza uses tetrameter on the first and third lines, but the poem uses trimeter on lines two and four of each stanza. For example, the 2nd line of stanza number four would look like the following:

Between / the light /- and me -

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Emily Dickinson carefully constructed "I heard a Fly buzz--when I died--" to have perfect iambic meter.   The word 'meter' describes the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables in a poem.  This particular poem is written in iambic meter, which means Dickinson wrote each line to be in a pattern of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable (like Duh-DUM).  Here is an example for you:

"I heard | a Fly | buzz – when | I died – "

Even the structure of the stanzas is carefully organized to support Dickinson's iambic meter; she divided the poem into four stanzas, and each of those stanzas have the same division of syllables per line.  The first and third lines have eight syllables each (known as 'iambic tetrameter', because 'tetra' means four--so it has four iambs).  The second and fourth lines of each stanza have six syllables each (iambic trimeter).  

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