I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—

by Emily Dickinson

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 588

Death as a Phase of Transition

In her poem “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—,” Emily Dickinson presents death as a transition rather than an ending. This idea is present from the first line of the poem, where the speaker establishes the fact that she addresses her audience from beyond the grave and is able to recall and recount the events of her own death. Additionally, in the poem’s second stanza, Dickinson refers to death as “that last Onset.” In doing so, she describes death as not only a transition but also a beginning.

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Depending upon interpretation, the mention of “the King” in the second stanza may also imply the continuation of life after death. Some understand this figure to be Christ arriving to guide a soul to heaven in death; many readers in Dickinson’s time, as part of a predominantly Christian audience, would likely have read these lines in this way. Finally, the “light” that the fly blocks in the fourth stanza is often interpreted as the light of heaven, implying a transition that the speaker may be undergoing when her view of the light is blocked by the fly.

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The Ritualistic Nature of Death

As the speaker narrates the moments leading up to her death, it becomes apparent that the process of dying has a ritualistic quality, especially for the people around her witnessing that process. When death arrives quickly or unexpectedly, of course, there is no time for ritual; but the speaker’s death is at least somewhat expected, for people—presumably friends and family members—have had time to gather around her to witness her dying moments. In the third stanza, the speaker mentions the established and expected ritual of signing a will:

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I willed my Keepsakes—Signed away
What portion of me be
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The final step in the process of dying is, of course, the moment of death itself, which the speaker describes in the second stanza. The people around her appeared to know what to expect concerning this moment, and they prepared themselves for it: their “Breaths were gathering firm” in preparation to witness the presence of “the King” in the room. Whether “the King” is interpreted as Christ, Death, or another figure, the people around the speaker as she died knew to expect his arrival.

The Stillness Before Death

In the time leading up to her death, the speaker in the poem witnessed a sense of calm in the room around her. There was a “Stillness in the Room” that she likens to the calm

“Between the Heaves of Storm.” If life and death are interpreted as the “Heaves” she refers to, the pause in the middle would be like that experienced in the eye of a hurricane: though still, there is tension and anticipation of what is to come. The mourners around the speaker as she died experienced a stillness too, as their eyes had been “wrung . . . dry,” and unable to cry any more, they prepared themselves for her moment of death. 

Readers experience a stillness similar to the one the speaker describes as they read the poem. Though readers anticipate the speaker’s death just as her mourners do, there is familiarity in the scene of her mourners crying, preparing themselves, and witnessing the signing of her will that creates a sense of calm. The distracting and unsettling appearance of the fly at the end of the third stanza, however, ends this calm and ushers in the next “Heave” of the storm—the speaker’s death.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 376

Dickinson, like many of her contemporaries in the middle of the nineteenth century, was deeply concerned about the truth of the conventional Christianity taught and generally believed in her culture. Like that of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville, her religious questioning resulted in part from the general decline of the authority of Christianity in Western civilization. This decline had begun most visibly perhaps with the rise of rivals to the Roman Catholic Church’s secular power in nation-states and had continued through the splintering of that church in the Reformation, the intellectual and scientific critique of Christianity’s traditional interpretations of history and nature during the Enlightenment, the challenges to Christianity’s moral and political power in the American and French revolutions, and the spread of knowledge about powerful rival religious systems partly as a result of advancing world trade and communication.

Many of Dickinson’s poems are about the various problems of faith and doubt that would occur to a brilliant and imaginative mind in her culture. This poem is an attempt to pierce through the absolute barrier that stands between the poet and the life beyond death. It attempts to answer the question: What comes in the moment that follows death?

Dickinson places herself in the mind of a woman who has died. She relives the moment of death, trying to imagine it and the hoped-for illumination that should follow. She finds at the instant of death a clarity of perception that she tries to extend through that instant. Yet what her imagination provides at that crucial instant is the fly, which ends illumination and leaves the consciousness in utter darkness.

Nevertheless, consciousness remains. The voice speaks from beyond the grave, but all it can reveal is what its senses could apprehend before death, that instant when the senses ceased to operate. Beyond that is a blank, toward which the fly as a symbol points but about which it reveals nothing but questions: Who is the King? Is it death? Is it Christ? Is it something unimaginably terrifying, like Beelzebub? The fly ushers the poet across the threshold suggested by its “Blue—uncertain stumbling buzz.” The fly points the way, but the living cannot interpret its buzz, and her voice stops.

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