I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—

by Emily Dickinson

Start Free Trial

Editor's Choice

Does Emily Dickinson's "I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—" use exact or approximate rhymes? How does this affect the poem's effect?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Dickinson uses regular and irregular—or, more specifically, slant—rhyme in this poem. In Dickinson's slant rhyme, two words end with the same consonant, but the vowels before the consonant don't rhyme.

We can see this in the first two stanza of this poem: "room" and "storm" end with "m," but the "oo" and "or" sounds don't rhyme. Likewise, in stanza two, "firm" and "room" follow the same slant-rhyme pattern as the first stanza. In the third stanza, the rhyme is not slant, but "be" and "fly" don't precisely rhyme. Only in the last stanza do the end words of the second and fourth lines—"me" and "see"—rhyme completely.

The uncertainty of the rhyme underlines the poem's theme that death is uncertain and surprising. Like the rhyme scheme, death does not exactly follow expected patterns.

For the first few stanzas, everything is proceeding as expected. The family has gathered around the deathbed. They have stopped crying and are stoically awaiting the death. The dying person has signed her will and given away all her keepsakes. All is in order—or is it?, the rhymes imply.

In the last stanza, the "uncertain" stumbling buzz of the fly interrupts this "perfect" death scene, distracting the speaker at the moment of expiring. At this point, the rhyme becomes perfect, reinforcing the idea the only thing we can know for certain about death is that it is unpredictable.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Dickinson often employs slant, or approximate, rhymes (words with any kind of sound similarity) rather than exact rhymes. In lines two and four, the final words "Room" and "Storm" share the "r" sound as well as the final "m" sound. In lines six and eight, the final words "firm" and "Room" share the same "r" sound and "m" sound. The third stanza lacks even approximate rhyme among the final words, but then the fourth stanza employs an exact rhyme with the words "me" and "see" that come at the ends of lines fourteen and sixteen, respectively. It makes sense that the exact rhyme, with its feeling of wholeness and completion, would end the poem, especially given the fact that this is when the speaker seems to actually die. The first three stanzas, and even the first two lines of the final stanza, discuss her preparations for death and the moment just prior to it. However, we might assume that the final two lines actually describe death itself—the end of life and the poem—and it seems fitting that the only exact rhyme in the poem would provide an appropriate sense of closure.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Emily Dickinson has a very distinct style in most of her poems.  She uses a lot of dashes, unusual punctuation, short stanzas, dense lines, omission of unnecessary pronouns and words, and slant rhymes.  Slant rhymes are rhymes that aren't exact; they kind-of rhyme.  They aren't straight-forward rhymes, they come in more at a slant.  So, in "I Heard a Fly Buzz-When I Died", she uses this type of rhyming.  For example, look at the ends of lines 2 and 4.  They contain the words "Room" and "Storm".  While not an obvious and blatant rhyme, it is a slant rhyme; they both end in "m's" and contain "o's" for a rounded sound.  The same applies for lines 6 and 8 that end in "firm" and "room".  However, lines 14 and 16, ending in "me" and "see" are a straight-forward rhyme, not a slant rhyme.

Using slant rhymes helps the poems to have a lyrical and rhythmic feel, without being outright obvious about it.  It makes her poems very flowing and graceful without the rollicking lilt (that often sounds nursery-rhyme-ish) that full-on rhyming sometimes has.  It is a more mature, sublte, song-like quality that gives her poems soberness and layers.  In this poem, death is the subject; a woman is dying, and at the end can no longer see.  Death is a serious subject; to give the poem exact rhymes the entire time would make it seem to up-beat and bouncy.  Slant rhymes give it the same flowing quality, the same serenity, without the boisterousness.  I hope that those thoughts help!  Good luck!

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial