I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—

by Emily Dickinson

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Analysis

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Last Updated on December 20, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 579

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.

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“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.” 

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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.

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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.

The Poem

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 372

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

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 740

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 there is a storm taking place in her as well, a storm of suffering that might also be compared to a battle, in which this lull signals the final, fatal onset.

What is expected next, then, is momentous sound, the climax of mourning, grief, and suffering. When the expectation of painful climax is clear, the poem turns to the idea of compensation or comfort. The second stanza says that when the last onset comes, the “King” will manifest himself. In the conventional view of death in nineteenth century America, that “King” (capitalized for emphasis and to indicate divinity) would be Christ, come to reap the soul of the dying Christian. By not naming this “King” however, Dickinson creates an ambiguity that reverberates through the whole experience of the poem. The figure might just as well be Death as Christ. Furthermore, what actually appears to the dying woman is not any recognizable king at all but a fly.

When the fly appears, a double reversal takes place. The storm metaphor and the expectation of a king lead the reader to anticipate something momentous at the end of the poem. This expectation is answered by the fly. These reversals invite the reader to explore the connections between the fly and the king. Such explorations lead into further shocking violations of expectation regarding meaning in the poem.

By exploring the metaphor of fly as king, one comes to the realization of the fly as a symbol. The best-known “fly king” is Beelzebub, lord of the flies and prince of devils. There is nothing in the poem to suggest that the woman should expect eternal damnation, yet Dickinson seems to have made this connection with its surprising connotations. Furthermore, flies are conventionally associated with death; they swarm on carrion, and their larvae thrive there. The most terrifying possible meaning for a religious person in the substitution of a fly for a king is that death is final, that the soul dies with the body and there is no afterlife.

Dickinson’s technique emphasizes the violation of expectations. In addition to the primary substitution (of fly for king), she enacts a similar violation when she rhymes “me” and “fly” in the third stanza, reintroducing the fly with a near-rhyme. Finally, she repeats this pattern by shifting from sound to sight at the end of the poem, when the buzz of the fly seems to blot out the speaker’s light so that the windows fail to let light into her room, and her consciousness, still apparently operational, loses its connections by means of sight and sound to the familiar physical world.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 147

Boruch, Marianne. “Dickinson Descending.” The Georgia Review 40 (1986): 863-877.

Brantley, Richard E. Experience and Faith: The Late-Romantic Imagination of Emily Dickinson. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Carruth, Hayden. “Emily Dickinson’s Unexpectedness.” Ironwood 14 (1986): 51-57.

Eberwein, Jane Donahue. An Emily Dickinson Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998.

Ferlazzo, Paul, ed. Critical Essays on Emily Dickinson. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984.

Grabher, Gudrun, Roland Hagenbüchle, and Cristanne Miller, ed. The Emily Dickinson Handbook. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998.

Juhasz, Suzanne, ed. Feminist Critics Read Emily Dickinson. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983.

Kirk, Connie Ann. Emily Dickinson: A Biography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004.

Lundin, Roger. Emily Dickinson and the Art of Belief. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 2004.

MacNeil, Helen. Emily Dickinson. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986.

Pollack, Vivian R. A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Vendler, Helen Hennessey. Poets Thinking: Pope, Whitman, Dickinson, Yeats. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004.

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