I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—

by Emily Dickinson

Start Free Trial

Student Question

What is the theme of "I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—"?

Expert Answers

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

Like many of Emily Dickinson's poems, "I heard a Fly buzz--when I died--" focuses on death and what may happen after a person's physical body dies.  For Dickinson, this exploration of the afterlife leads her to believe that death can potentially be a disappointment instead of something to lean toward.  For instance, there are all the trimmings of a death scene in this poem: there is a "Stillness in the Air" (l. 3) and "The Eyes around--had wrung them dry--" as the dying speaker's loved ones surround her bed, waiting for her last moments.  The speaker has "willed [her] Keepsakes--Signed away / What portion of [her] be / Assignable" (ll. 9-11), and she is looking toward the "light," toward Heaven and its angels.  However, through all of this sadness, there is the fly, an annoyance that breaks up the silence in the room and comes "Between the light--and me--" (l. 14).  By the end of the poem, instead of the speaker heading toward the light, her eyes close and she "could not see to see" (l. 16); there was nothing at the end of the speaker's life except for darkness.  This is a disappointment; most people want to think that there is something beyond this life, but Dickinson questions the validity of that claim.

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

What is the meaning or the point of the poem "I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—"?

This poem is such a contrast to another of Emily Dickenson's poems about death, "Because I could not stop for death." In that poem, death is like a gallant visitor who sweeps the narrator's soul away on a majestic carriage ride into eternity.

No such pomp and circumstance exists in this poem. No. At the moment of death, with so much to be expected of this final moment of life, a distracting fly buzzed around in the room. How absurd... how trivial. This tiny living thing went on its merry, oblivious way at the last second of the narrator's life and then, as she says:

... the windows failed, and then
I could not see to see.

Pffft. Gone.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the meaning or the point of the poem "I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—"?

I would just like to add a couple ideas to what has already been presented.  Of all the things one expects at the time of death, a fly is certainly not part of the picture.  In life flies, with their incessant and annoying BUZZ (specifically mentioned in the poem) are a nuisance; they are also often attracted to things that are already dead.  Flies are also associated with Beelezebub as in "Lord of the Flies."  Another thing I'd rather not meet on my deathbed.  Nothing good here.

It's interesting to note that, although they are waiting for the "last onset" of the king, no such thing happens.  The fly gets between the dying person and the window, "Between the light and me."  Then, "I could not see to see."  Death is just there, a part of life, much like falling asleep when you are very tired ... except for that fly.  And yet, the fly is as common as anything in life, just a part of the cycle.  I'd rather be visited by an eagle on my deathbed, if I have to be there when I die, but that's not the way it is.  Death is much too ordinary ....

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the meaning or the point of the poem "I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—"?

The poem shows the duality of death, that death is most glorious and inglorious, that it is a physical means to a spiritual end, and it is associated with both Christ-like and carrion imagery.

Here's the poem:

I heard a fly buzz when I died;
The stillness round my form
Was like the stillness in the air
Between the heaves of storm.

The eyes beside had wrung them dry,
And breaths were gathering sure
For that last onset, when the king
Be witnessed in his power.

I willed my keepsakes, signed away
What portion of me I
Could make assignable,-and then
There interposed a fly,

With blue, uncertain, stumbling buzz,
Between the light and me;
And then the windows failed, and then
I could not see to see.

The fly is the dominate image in the poem.  It appears in three of the four stanzas.  The only stanza it doesn't appear in is the second, where there is Christ-like imagery "the king."  The key phrase is "last onset," an oxymoron: how can it be last and first?  Well, Christ said he was the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end.  Is death not the last of the physical world and the onset of the spiritual?

But how is Christ connected with the fly?  The speaker wills away her material possessions, but what happens to her body?  Is it not a feast for the fly, a carrion?  The speaker seems to lament this sticking point.  The speaker expects to see Christ the King after death, but s/he only gets a fly.  This is a spiritual letdown, to be sure.

I always teach this poem with Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, as both have dead women speaking.  Whereas Dickinson is a Christian, Faulkner professes no theology in his black comedy.  Indeed Dickinson's speaker sounds a lot like the nihilistic Addie Bundren in the poem.  So says Darl:

"The quilt is drawn up to her chin, hot as it is, with only her two hands and her face outside. She is propped on the pillow, with her head raised so she can see out the window, and we can hear him every time he takes up the adze or the saw. If we were deaf we could almost watch her face and hear him, see him. Her face is wasted away so that the bones draw just under the skin in white lines. Her eyes are like two candles when you watch them gutter down into the sockets of iron candlesticks. But the eternal and the everlasting salvation and grace is not upon her."

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the meaning or the point of the poem "I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—"?

To me, the point of this poem is how easily we, as human beings, can be distracted from what is important (or at least from what we are trying to concentrate on).

In this poem, the narrator is dying.  She knows he's dying and he's trying to get his will all settled and everything.  But in the middle of doing this, she's distracted by a fly.  And she keeps noticing the fly until she is dead.

So instead of paying attention to her will or to saying any last good-byes to the people gathered around her (all the stuff you'd think was important) she pays attention to the fly.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What happens at the end of the poem "I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—"?

At the end of the poem, the speaker dies.

We can tell the speaker dies at the end of the poem because at the end of the poem the speaker can no longer see.

And then the Windows failed - and then

I could not see to see -

By saying that he could not see, the speaker is saying that he has died.  We know that he is dying, because the title tells us so.  All of the events of a poem describe a deathbed.  The speaker tells us about how he was “willed my Keepsakes.”  He describes the buzzing of the fly in the stillness of the room as everyone is crying.  The fly both seems to disturb the supposed peace of the deathbed and remind us of the everyday nature of death.

We would like to think of death as peaceful, but the fly is a carrion insect.  It reminds us of the disgusting reality of what happens when we die.  When we die, we just die.  Our body decomposes.  A fly is waiting for it.  It is as if the fly, sensing that the end is near, is waiting for the corpse.  The fly lays eggs in the corpse, becoming maggots, and the decomposition begins.  It is not what we want to think of when we are dying.  We want to think of peace and loved ones. 

The poem also reminds us that we can’t take our material possessions with us.  The speaker has willed away “What portion of me be/Assignable.”  It is humbling to be reminded that our lives are reduced to the things we own at the end, as well as the physical corpse.  Both being broken down, taken away bit by bit.  It is almost like both of these images are the last things the dying person is thinking of in the last breath, as his eyes close.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the meaning of "I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—" by Emily Dickinson?

I will echo the above.  Dickinson's point was about how although we see death as a major event, in the natural world it is not.  Death is an every day occurance.  Sitting with someone as they die is not enlightening leading to epiphanies--it is quiet and anti-climatic.  We want our lives--full of sound and fury--to end with a bang--but often they don't, hence the housefly.  This poem puts into perpspective how regardless of the kinds of lives we live, we all end our lives in the same way.  The mundane--the fly--and the profound--life after death--can be perhaps one in the same.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the meaning of "I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—" by Emily Dickinson?

This poem is unique in several ways, but perhaps most significantly because it is a narrative of a person's death by that person. So this suggests, in a way, that there is some existence after death. But the person's description of the actual process of dying is mundane and even macabre. The narrator's passage into death is not heralded by visions of a beautiful afterlife (indeed, the fly "interposed itself between the light" and the narrator) or by meeting the Almighty. Meeting "the king" seems to be expected, but not realized. Instead, the buzzing of the fly, which obviously carries an association with morbidity and rotting corpses, is the only sensation the dying person experiences before finally expiring. Ultimately, this poem is an expression of the ambiguities, uncertainties, and ultimately, the fear of death that plague even people of devout religious faith. The fly encapsulates all of these emotions, even though it is a mundane little insect.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What does the poem "I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—" mean about death?

Consider the forms of life that the speaker identifies in the poem:  herself, a king, and the lowly fly. 

The speaker, as she listens to the vibrant buzz of the lowliest creature on earth, the fly, cannot help but feel envious of its claim to the living world.  The fly, a common parasite on corpses, may also be a vulture-like symbol.  It waits for her to die so it can continue its own life.

The King, mentioned in line 7, may well be Christ the King, who has the only power over death.  However, the poem does not seem very hopeful.   The death seems lonely and alone, the fate that will meet all of us someday.   Death is the only thing we do alone.

(Cheerful, huh?) 

Here is the text of the poem:

I heard a fly buzz when I died;
The stillness round my form
Was like the stillness in the air
Between the heaves of storm.

The eyes beside had wrung them dry,
And breaths were gathering sure
For that last onset, when the king
Be witnessed in his power.

I willed my keepsakes, signed away
What portion of me I
Could make assignable, and then
There interposed a fly,

With blue, uncertain, stumbling buzz,
Between the light and me;
And then the windows failed, and then
I could not see to see.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What does the third stanza of "I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—" by Emily Dickinson mean?

In this poem, the speaker, who is already deceased, reflects upon the moment of her death. In the first stanza, the speaker describes the stillness of the moment, and in the second stanza, the speaker describes the people who were in the room with her. These people had, she says, cried and "wrung" their eyes "dry." The speaker also says, in the second stanza, that God, described here as "the King," had entered the room.

In the opening lines of the third stanza, the speaker says that she "willed (her) Keepsakes," and "Signed away / What portions" of her that were "Assignable." In other words, the speaker gladly renounced the material possessions ("Keepsakes") that she had accrued during her life. She willingly renounced everything that she could, and thus everything that was "Assignable." The implication here is that she did not give away only what was not hers to give, perhaps meaning her soul. The speaker perhaps believes that her soul was to be given only to, or taken only by, God.

In the last two lines of stanza three, the speaker's peaceful acceptance of death, implied by her willing renunciation of her life, is disturbed by the eponymous fly. The speaker says that "There interposed a Fly," meaning that the fly "interposed" itself between her and a peaceful death. We might infer that the buzz of the fly brought the speaker's mind back to her life, or rather her death. The fly, it seems, interrupted the otherwise peaceful process of the speaker's passing into the afterlife.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

How does the poem "I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—" connect to today?

This poem by Emily Dickinson was written around 1863, yet because it deals with the subject of death, it is still as meaningful today as when it was written. Interestingly, the narrator of the poem is describing her own death, and we could imagine a person dying nowadays having a similar experience. The poem describes the mourners, the will, and the Fly, each of which we can associate with modern-day deaths.

The mourners are described as having cried themselves out for the present. This created a stillness in the room "like the Stillness in the Air - Between the Heaves of Storm." This compares the mourning to a thunderstorm that comes in waves. Between each downpour is a very silent and still respite. This often happens when a person is dying: One person may break down crying and soon everyone in the room is sobbing. Eventually, all the tears will dry up, and it will become very still--that's what stanzas one and two describe.

Stanza three talks about creating a Last Will and Testament, or a will, in which the person who is going to die specifies who will receive her worldly goods after she has passed away. People still do this today.

The "Fly" is more troublesome. Yes, we have flies today, and they could be in a room where someone is dying. The point, however, is the irony. When something is so overwhelming, so indescribable, talking about something as inconsequential as a fly seems sacrilegious, even disgusting. The poet may have had several things in mind. She may be pointing out the insignificance of our human existence in the face of eternity and the afterlife. She may be pointing out that when our human brains are faced with the immensity of life and death, they stall, and fall back on any piece of reality, no matter how unimportant. She may even be imagining a sound effect of the spirit leaving the body at the moment of death. Any of these interpretations and more are possible. A person who has experienced the death of a loved one can read this poem and connect with the experience in whatever way speaks to him or her. 

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
Last Updated on