Last Updated November 3, 2023.
Emily Dickinson’s “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—” explores death from the unique perspective of a speaker who has traversed its boundary. When this poem was first published, Dickinson herself addressed her audience from the other side of death; the poem, along with the majority of Dickinson’s other poems, was published posthumously. Through this poem, Dickinson explores the experience of death, narrating the signing of a will, the mourning of family and friends, and other preparations made for dying person’s final moments. However, she also introduces the mysterious figure of the fly, which appeared just before the speaker died, into this deathbed scene.
“I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—” is broken up into four stanzas, each of which contains four lines. Though the poem’s first line references the fly, Dickinson uses the first three stanzas to describe the scene of the speaker’s death; she does not explain the fly’s entrance until the end of the third stanza. Before the fly’s entrance, the room’s atmosphere was still and solemn: the speaker signed her will, and her mourners prepared themselves to witness her passing. The fly’s arrival, with its “Blue—uncertain—stumbling Buzz,” added tension to the otherwise quiet scene. The speaker explains her death in the poem’s final line, explaining that she “could not see to see.”
Like most of Dickinson’s poems, this poem is iambic; the second syllable of each metrical foot is emphasized, and the poem assumes a heartbeat-like rhythm. The poem alternates between iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter, which means that there are eight syllables in the first and third lines of each stanza and six in the second and fourth. This familiar and songlike meter is frequently interrupted, however, by Dickinson’s characteristic use of dashes.
If a regular meter is typical of Dickinson’s poems, perfect rhyme is not—Dickinson made frequent use of slant rhyme in her poetry. In this poem, lines two and four of each stanza rhyme, if only slightly or at a glance: stanza 1 rhymes “Room” and “Storm,” stanza 2 rhymes “firm” and “Room,” and stanza 3 rhymes “be” and “Fly.” Interestingly, the poem’s final rhyme—“me” and “see”—is a perfect rhyme. Because the final line of this poem signals the speaker’s death, it is possible that the transition from slant to perfect rhyme is meant to parallel the transition the speaker was undergoing while dying: the speaker’s death coincides with a perfect rhyme that gives the poem a sense of closure.
The transition from slant to perfect rhyme provides readers with a sense of relief: the rhyme readers have been expecting finally arrives in the last line. However, the last stanza of the poem is less relieving on the thematic level. The significance of the fly in the poem is greatly debated. Some believe the fly is an annoyance which intruded upon the peaceful atmosphere of the deathbed scene. Others see the fly as a type of spiritual figure present in the speaker’s transition from life to what lies beyond. Still others, pointing to the fact that the fly blocked the speaker’s view of “the light,” wonder if the fly signifies the speaker’s fate in the afterlife. No matter how the fly is interpreted, its “uncertain—stumbling Buzz” and the fact that its entrance coincided with the speaker’s imminent death give the poem an ambiguous and unsettling conclusion.