I heard a Fly buzz—when I died— Analysis

Emily Dickinson

The Poem

Emily Dickinson did not give titles to most of her poems. They are usually labeled by their first lines, and her modern editor, Thomas H. Johnson, has numbered them according to his conclusions about their order of composition (this poem is numbered 465). Publications of the poem before Johnson’s The Poems of Emily Dickinson (1955) are usually of the text as it was altered by Mabel Loomis Todd when she published Poems: Third Series (1896).

“I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—” consists of four stanzas, with Dickinson’s characteristic slant-or near-rhymes in the second and fourth lines of each quatrain. The first-person speaker of the poem is at some remove from Dickinson’s lyric voice; these words come from beyond the grave. Dickinson wrote a number of poems from this point of view; perhaps the most famous is “Because I could not stop for Death—” (poem 712). This subject held a particular fascination for Dickinson, in part because she was interested in resolving religious doubts about life continuing after death. In this poem, the dead speaker looks back at the moment of death.

After announcing that she heard a fly buzz when she died, the speaker describes the moments that led up to this event. The first stanza describes the silence of the room before she died as like the quiet between two phases of a storm. The second stanza describes the people present at the deathbed. They are also quiet, exhausted from their watch and preparing now for the final loss. In the third stanza, she says she had just made her last wishes known when the fly “interposed.” The last two lines of this stanza begin the long sentence that continues through the final stanza. This sentence describes how the fly seemed to blot out the light, and then all light ceased, leaving her conscious but utterly blinded.

The poem announces at the outset that sound will be important. The middle of the poem emphasizes the silence as temporary, as a fragile period between storms of suffering and weeping. The end of the poem returns to the sound of the fly’s buzz, seemingly quiet and inconsequential, not a storm at all and yet marking indelibly the momentous instant of transition.

Forms and Devices

Dickinson’s stanza form is not remarkable in itself; indeed, students of her poetry take delight in finding comically inappropriate melodies for singing her poems, the majority of which follow the rhythms of familiar hymn tunes. (This poem, for example, works equally well with “Oh God Our Help in Ages Past” and “The Yellow Rose of Texas.”) What makes her stanzas remarkable is the contrast between their conventional rhythms and the striking metaphors, symbols, and points of view they contain. Two complexes of comparison are especially interesting in this work: those conveying the silence before the fly appears and those characterizing the fly.

When Dickinson compares the stillness in the room to the “Stillness in the Air—/ Between the Heaves of Storm,” she conveys at least three interesting things about this quiet moment. First, it is a temporary lull that follows violence and is expected to precede more violence. That violence, being associated with a storm, seems to exceed the capacity of a mere room to hold it. By giving the storm “heaves,” she begins a second comparison between the storm and weeping. This comparison is taken up in the second stanza by means of synecdoche, in which a part of something is used to signify the whole. She says “The Eyes around—had wrung them dry.” Eyes signify the mourners as do the breaths in the following line. Just as the mourners have been heaving in their weeping, their eyes have been wringing themselves dry, like wet cloths, or like clouds in a storm. By this means, Dickinson asks readers to imagine both the room and each individual mourner as filled with a storm of grief that is beyond encompassing. Finally, she reveals that the mourners are awaiting “the last Onset,” the image of the storm is extended to the speaker herself, for...

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