Last Updated November 3, 2023.
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.
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.
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:
I willed my Keepsakes—Signed away
What portion of me be
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.