I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—

by Emily Dickinson

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Analysis of poetic techniques and diction in Emily Dickinson's "I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—"


In "I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—," Emily Dickinson uses vivid imagery, precise diction, and auditory details to convey the stillness and anticipation of death. Her choice of words, such as "buzz," evokes the mundane intrusion of the fly, contrasting with the solemnity of the moment. The poem’s structure and punctuation enhance the tension and quietness, reflecting the speaker's final moments.

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What poetic techniques does Dickinson employ in "I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—"?

Like the buzzing of a fly, the rhythm of Emily Dickinson's poem, "I heard a Fly buzz--when I died--" is interrupted by dashes.  In this poem, Dickinson uses her formal pattern of iambic tetrameter and trimeter.  Each stanza has an abab pattern; the first three stanzas are written in half rhymes [e.g. Room/Storm, firm/Room, be/Fly] while the final stanza is written in full rhyme with me/see. With the half rhyme and dashes, there is a sense of incompletion, while only in the last stanza with the death of the speaker is there completion.

In this deathbed scene, another of the images of domestic life about which Dickinson writes, the fly intrudes at the most poignant of all human occurrences.  At the last moment of death as the speaker wishes to be spiritually prepared for her death, "when the King/Be witnessed--in the Room--" instead the fly, a metaphor for the intrusion of something so trivial and annoying, interrupts her final moments as she "could not see to see--" and the solemn moments of the onlookers, characterized by synedoche [Eyes, Breaths] who "were gathering firm" are interrupted as well. 

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What poetic techniques does Dickinson employ in "I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—"?

In this classic poem by Emily Dickinson, the speaker is a dead person who is reflecting back on the last moments of her life and the moment of her death.  The poem uses great diction, visual and aural imagery, alliteration and other sound devices, and metaphor to convey the frustration the speaker feels about the fact that at the very moment she was ready to die, a fly came into her notice and disturbed her.

visual imagery:  that the fly "interposed . . . between the light and me."  The reader can visual the fly flying around the room.  The light could mean the light from a lamp, the light from a window, or the "light" at the end of the tunnel towards death and the afterlife.  The speaker also says that "the windows failed, and then I could not see to see."  This is visual imagery as well because the inability to see still suggests vision and darkness.

alliteration: "with blue, uncertain, stumbling, buzz"  draws attention to the noise of the fly as it  flits around the room.  This is especially emphasized by the onomatopoeia of the word buzz.

aural imagery:  (sounds) -- "the stillness in the room" in contrast to the "breathes [that] were gathering firm" also the fact that she could hear the fly buzzing, not just see it implies that sound was perhaps more annoying than its mere presence.

metaphor:  the windows are metaphorical for eyes.  The eyes fail to see once death occurs.

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What poetic techniques does Dickinson employ in "I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—"?

[eNotes editors are only permitted to answer one question per posting. If you have additional questions, please post them separately.]

According to Magill’s Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition, at enotes.com, some of the literary devices Emily Dickinson employs in her poem "I heard a Fly buzz —when I died" are extremely sophisticated.

The first device used is called synesthesia. This device involves the use of one sense to describe another. For example, the breaths of the "watchers" are gathered, waiting for the last breath of the woman who lies dying:

And breaths were gathering sure

For that last onset...

The other is called paronomasia which is another term for wordplay, a complicated way to used words in both obvious and subtle ways which may only be noticed by the most discerning reader. For example, the room where the woman is dying is very still, but the atmosphere is charged like the lull between the movements of a storm front:

The room is still, but this stillness resembles the interval between the heavings of a storm.

There is the discussion of the dying person's will, and the will in which she has bequeathed her belongings. The wordplay here is found with the word "will" with its different meanings.

In general, the poem is made up of four stanzas, which act like paragraphs in a poem. It is in the stanza that we find the rhyme scheme of the poem: the end rhyme—or the rhyming of the words at the end of lines—follows the pattern: abcb. This means that the words at the end of the first and third lines do NOT rhyme, but the second and fourth lines DO rhyme at the end. For example, in the first stanza, "form" and "storm" rhyme. In the second stanza, "sure" and "power" rhyme (though "power" is closer to a "near-rhyme," also known as "slant rhyme"). The third stanza shows the second and fourth lines rhyming with "I" and "fly" and so forth.

The rhythmic structure in the stanzas, for the most part, seems to show three stressed syllables in the second and fourth lines (called "trimeter"), and four stressed syllables in the first and third lines (called "tetrameter"). The meter represents a certain number of paired syllables for each line, also called "feet." The stress usually falls on the second syllable. For example, in the following line, see where the stress lies—this stress creates the rocking motion of the poem, especially when read out loud:

I heard a fly buzz when I died

The stress lies on "heard," "fly," "when," and "died." When scanning the line, it would look like this:   ^ /    ^ /    ^ /    ^ /  (where the caret "^" shows an unstressed syllable, and the slash "/" shows a stressed syllable).

Onomatopoeia is used with the world "buzz" and "breaths." And imagery, another poetic device, is vividly rendered in the line "There interposed a fly, / With blue, uncertain, stumbling buzz..."

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What type of diction is used in Emily Dickinson's "I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—"?

Concrete diction is built with words that allow the reader to create a mental picture of the author’s intention. These are usually sensory words that appeal to the reader’s ability to imaginatively see, hear, feel, taste, or smell. Sometimes we refer to these words as “imagery,” especially when we are talking about poetry.

Abstract diction makes use of words that do not create such a mental picture. While they may be informative and necessary to some kinds of writing, they are vague and do not create a memorable impression for the reader.  To see the difference, check out the gorilla example at the link below. It’s a good, although a little gross, way to understand the difference between abstract and concrete.

Dickinson’s poem “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—“ is a nice example of concrete diction or imagery.  Look at the first stanza:

I heard a Fly buzz - when I died -

The Stillness in the Room

Was like the Stillness in the Air -

Between the Heaves of Storm –

While this poem can be interpreted in various ways, we can generally assume that Emily wants to express the idea of the quietness of the moment of death. While most people would simply say something like “Death is very quiet,” or, “In death there is no sound,” Dickinson creates a more vivid image.

The word “buzz,” which is an example of onomatopoeia, serves to emphasize how quiet the room is in death; it has to be quiet to hear a fly make that sound. Then the actual word “stillness” imparts more meaning than just “quiet.” It implies a physical state that affects everything in the room. Finally, the simile that compares the stillness to the space “Between the Heaves of Storm” gives the reader something real (a storm) to latch on to mentally.

Another good question to ponder would be: what does Dickinson mean by “Between the Heaves of Storm”?

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