Last Updated November 3, 2023.
From the first line of Dickinson’s “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—,” it is evident that the speaker is addressing readers from the perspective of someone who has already died. The causes of the speaker’s death are unknown; however, her death had been at least somewhat expected, because there was enough time for mourners to assemble around her. The speaker appears to have been greatly loved during her life, because the mourners around her cried until they had “wrung” their eyes dry. Before her death, the speaker completed her will, “Sign[ing] away / What portion of [her] be / Assignable,” and noticed the buzzing of a fly.
Though the fly is only referenced in a few lines of the poem, it is nevertheless an important figure. Dickinson introduces the fly in the first line of the poem, but chooses to postpone a description of it and instead narrates the circumstances of the speaker’s death first. In the first line of the third stanza, the speaker explains that the fly “interposed,” interrupting some aspect of her process of death. As she died, the speaker heard the fly’s “Blue—uncertain—stumbling Buzz” that came between her and “the light.” After this, the speaker died.
There is a great amount of debate as to the fly’s significance in the poem. Some see the fly as an ironic twist on the seriousness of death: though the speaker was facing a significant event—she describes death as “that last Onset”—she noticed something as commonplace and familiar as a fly’s buzzing. It is also possible that the speaker was preoccupied with the fly and that it distracted her from a sense of calm as she lay dying.
Others believe the fly holds a deeper or symbolic meaning. As flies are often associated with death and decay, the fly may be a morbid indication of the speaker’s impending death. Additionally, the fly might be interpreted as holding spiritual significance. For instance, the speaker explains that it at least partially obscured her view of “the light”; if this light is interpreted as a view of the afterlife or the light of heaven, the fact that the fly blocks her view of it may have spiritual implications concerning the speaker’s fate in the afterlife. Finally, because the fly arrives immediately prior to the speaker’s death, it may serve as an agent that helps her to cross between life and death.
The people gathered around the speaker are first referred to via synecdoche: Dickinson writes that “The Eyes around—had wrung them dry.” In describing the people around the speaker in this way, Dickinson emphasizes the fact that they were both watching the speaker’s death and mourning it. Before the speaker died, these people, likely friends or family members, witnessed the signing of her will. When they had cried all they could, they “gather[ed] firm” their breaths, preparing themselves for the arrival of “the King” at the speaker’s death.
In the second stanza, the speaker explains that the people gathered around her were preparing themselves for her death: the moment when “the King / Be witnessed—in the Room.” Because of the capitalization of “King” and the presence of Christian elements in some of Dickinson’s other poems, this figure might be interpreted as Christ, who would come to escort the speaker to heaven when she died. However, this “King” could also be viewed as a personification of death, as the mourners are preparing themselves to witness the speaker’s passing.