Write an essay that compares and contrasts these two poems of Emily Dickinson's: "Because I could not stop for Death" and "I heard a fly buzz when I died."

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

A casual reading of both poems reveals both deal with death. The speaker encounters death in some form or another then wrestles with the subject.

The tone between the two poems is quite different. "I Heard a Fly Buzz—When I Died" is like the titular insect filled with "uncertain" mood,...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

A casual reading of both poems reveals both deal with death. The speaker encounters death in some form or another then wrestles with the subject.

The tone between the two poems is quite different. "I Heard a Fly Buzz—When I Died" is like the titular insect filled with "uncertain" mood, with the speaker dying but not necessarily peacefully. They are surrounded by solemn people waiting for them to die, allegedly more interested in what they will get in the will than anything else. The poem also focuses on silence and minor, everyday details—which the speaker no longer takes for granted as they lay in bed waiting for the end to come.

The fly may or may not be a sinister image; one of the other commenters compared the fly to the demon Beelzebub, who was associated with flies, but the fly could simply be a neutral death figure as well. The fly coming between the speaker and the light could represent the darkness of unconsciousness overwhelming the dying speaker.

By contrast, "Because I could not stop for Death" presents a gentler portrait of death. Death takes the speaker into a carriage, and they drive leisurely through different landscapes. Here, death appears almost gentlemanly, even friendly, and he is certainly nothing to be feared. The unease is less present here than in the previous poem.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In terms of working on this particular prompt, I think you are going to have to do much of the legwork yourself.  Guidance and input can be given, but the bulk of the work is going to have be self initiated.  I think a good starting point would be to discuss the mood of each poem.  What general sentiments or feelings are brought out by reading each?  This might involve you reading the poems to yourself, aloud or silently, a couple of times in order to grasp where Dickinson's mind is and how she attempts to connect to the reader.  Another mode of discussion could be how death is characterized in each.  What does death "feel" or "look" like in each?  Then, ask yourself how different this might be from the traditional conception of death.  What  Dickinson is saying about death in both might be another topic to pursue.  Finally, I would examine the theme, or overall message, in each.  These might be good starting points to show points of convergence and divergence in both poems.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In accord with the first post, there is a clear difference in tone between the two poems.  For one thing, the introduction of the fly suggests Beelzebub, the "lord of the flies," or the devil.  This symbol of evil stumbling "Between the light and me" suggests that there is a point in which the soul of the speaker "could not see to see" where she is headed in eternity, whereas in "Because I could not stop for Death," the driver of the carriage that takes the speaker to her grave is "kindly" and "knows no haste"; the death holds no terrors as in the other poem; in fact, it is almost seductive. 

In addition to the tone of the poems, you may wish to compare/contrast the sequence of events and poetic devices in the poems, the sort of expectations set up by phrases such as "last onset," "the king" and "be witnessed" in "I heard a fly buzz" with the phrases in "Because I could not stop for Death" such as those in the first stanza, "We passed the setting sun/Or rather, he passed us," and others that indicate a more leisurely trip toward eternity, whereas in "I heard a fly buzz," the predatory fly waits to claim a corpse. 

Yet, characteristically of Dickinson, there is no enlightenment at the end of either poem.  The speaker is driven, albeit leisurely, inexorably to her grave; the king witnesses the death, but he cannot control anything but the allocations of the speaker's material possessions.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In order to get a good answer, you should ask a more focussed question.  Are there specific things we can help you with?  I'll give you a couple thoughts about the two poems that might help you get started, though.

The main difference I see between the two poems is in their respective views of death.  In "Because I Could Not...," death is kind of interesting.  It's a journey (literally, in the poem) where you get to see things and remain conscious for eternity.

By contrast, the view of death in "I Heard ...." is much different.  In this poem, death is a much more negative thing.  When the speaker dies, that is the end.  All that happens is that she can no longer see.  There is no vision of what happens next.

As I said, though, the more specifically you can ask a question, the more useful our answers will be.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team