What is the meaning or the point of the poem "I heard a fly buzz when I died"

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mstultz72 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The poem shows the duality of death, that death is most glorious and inglorious, that it is a physical means to a spiritual end, and it is associated with both Christ-like and carrion imagery.

Here's the poem:

I heard a fly buzz when I died;
The stillness round my form
Was like the stillness in the air
Between the heaves of storm.

The eyes beside had wrung them dry,
And breaths were gathering sure
For that last onset, when the king
Be witnessed in his power.

I willed my keepsakes, signed away
What portion of me I
Could make assignable,-and then
There interposed a fly,

With blue, uncertain, stumbling buzz,
Between the light and me;
And then the windows failed, and then
I could not see to see.

The fly is the dominate image in the poem.  It appears in three of the four stanzas.  The only stanza it doesn't appear in is the second, where there is Christ-like imagery "the king."  The key phrase is "last onset," an oxymoron: how can it be last and first?  Well, Christ said he was the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end.  Is death not the last of the physical world and the onset of the spiritual?

But how is Christ connected with the fly?  The speaker wills away her material possessions, but what happens to her body?  Is it not a feast for the fly, a carrion?  The speaker seems to lament this sticking point.  The speaker expects to see Christ the King after death, but s/he only gets a fly.  This is a spiritual letdown, to be sure.

I always teach this poem with Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, as both have dead women speaking.  Whereas Dickinson is a Christian, Faulkner professes no theology in his black comedy.  Indeed Dickinson's speaker sounds a lot like the nihilistic Addie Bundren in the poem.  So says Darl:

"The quilt is drawn up to her chin, hot as it is, with only her two hands and her face outside. She is propped on the pillow, with her head raised so she can see out the window, and we can hear him every time he takes up the adze or the saw. If we were deaf we could almost watch her face and hear him, see him. Her face is wasted away so that the bones draw just under the skin in white lines. Her eyes are like two candles when you watch them gutter down into the sockets of iron candlesticks. But the eternal and the everlasting salvation and grace is not upon her."

timbrady eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I would just like to add a couple ideas to what has already been presented.  Of all the things one expects at the time of death, a fly is certainly not part of the picture.  In life flies, with their incessant and annoying BUZZ (specifically mentioned in the poem) are a nuisance; they are also often attracted to things that are already dead.  Flies are also associated with Beelezebub as in "Lord of the Flies."  Another thing I'd rather not meet on my deathbed.  Nothing good here.

It's interesting to note that, although they are waiting for the "last onset" of the king, no such thing happens.  The fly gets between the dying person and the window, "Between the light and me."  Then, "I could not see to see."  Death is just there, a part of life, much like falling asleep when you are very tired ... except for that fly.  And yet, the fly is as common as anything in life, just a part of the cycle.  I'd rather be visited by an eagle on my deathbed, if I have to be there when I die, but that's not the way it is.  Death is much too ordinary ....

jseligmann eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This poem is such a contrast to another of Emily Dickenson's poems about death, "Because I could not stop for death." In that poem, death is like a gallant visitor who sweeps the narrator's soul away on a majestic carriage ride into eternity.

No such pomp and circumstance exists in this poem. No. At the moment of death, with so much to be expected of this final moment of life, a distracting fly buzzed around in the room. How absurd... how trivial. This tiny living thing went on its merry, oblivious way at the last second of the narrator's life and then, as she says:

... the windows failed, and then
I could not see to see.

Pffft. Gone.

pohnpei397 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

To me, the point of this poem is how easily we, as human beings, can be distracted from what is important (or at least from what we are trying to concentrate on).

In this poem, the narrator is dying.  She knows he's dying and he's trying to get his will all settled and everything.  But in the middle of doing this, she's distracted by a fly.  And she keeps noticing the fly until she is dead.

So instead of paying attention to her will or to saying any last good-byes to the people gathered around her (all the stuff you'd think was important) she pays attention to the fly.