I Heard a Fly Buzz—When I Died—
I Heard a Fly Buzz—When I Died—
Emily Dickinson 1896
Written in 1862, “I Heard a Fly Buzz—When I Died—” was first published in Emily Dickinson’s third posthumous collection of poetry, Poems by Emily Dickinson, third series, 1896. The poem has been an object of much critical debate, for there is disagreement over the meaning of the fly as a symbol and its relationship to the death of the poem’s speaker.
The poem’s persona seems to be a person who is speaking from somewhere beyond death. The speaker tells the story of his/her own deathbed scene, describing the final experiences and sensations before the exact moment of death. This is a fascinating point of view, for although many people have claimed to return from near-death experiences with stories of life after death, no one has ever been able to describe the moment of death itself. Dickinson, who was both fascinated by the subject of death and skeptical about immortality, offers her own insight into what is both a common and indescribable mystery of human experience.
Why does the speaker pay attention to a fly in the room? One reason might be because it is a petty annoyance that is distracting the speaker from the important business of putting his or her affairs in order. The fact that a little fly takes on such importance in the midst of what could be a profound moment of spiritual revelation shows that the speaker is still firmly tied to the physical world. Another reason might be because the fly is a creature that eats carrion, or dead flesh, and so it is an ironic and cruel reminder of the fate of the dead
person’s body after he or she is gone. A third reason might be that this experience of death is catalogued according to the loss of the senses. The sound of the fly is like a tether that connects the speaker to the world of the living. When the sound of the fly fades, the speaker also fades, until the poem’s final moment of blindness and silence.
Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, in 1830 and lived there all her life. Her grandfather was the founder of Amherst College, and her father, Edward Dickinson, was a lawyer who served as the treasurer of the college. He also held various political offices. Her mother, Emily Norcross Dickinson, was a quiet and frail woman. Dickinson went to primary school for four years and then attended Amherst Academy from 1840 to 1847 before spending a year at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. Her education was strongly influenced by Puritan religious beliefs, but Dickinson did not accept the teachings of the Unitarian church attended by her family, and she remained agnostic throughout her life. Following the completion of her education, Dickinson lived in the family home with her parents and younger sister, Lavinia, while her elder brother, Austin, and his wife, Susan, lived next door. She began writing verse at an early age, practicing her craft by rewriting poems she found in books, magazines, and newspapers. During a trip to Philadelphia in the early 1850s, Dickinson fell in love with a married minister, the Reverend Charles Wadsworth; her disappointment in love may have brought about her subsequent withdrawal from society. Dickinson experienced an emotional crisis of an undetermined nature in the early 1860s. Her traumatized state of mind is believed to have inspired her to write prolifically: in 1862 alone, she is thought to have composed more than three hundred poems. In that same year, Dickinson initiated a correspondence with Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the literary editor of the Atlantic Monthly magazine. Over the years, Dickinson sent nearly one hundred of her poems for his criticism, and he became a sympathetic adviser and confidant, but he never published any of her poems. Dickinson’s isolation further increased when her father died unexpectedly in 1874 and her mother suffered a stroke that left her an invalid. Dickinson and her sister provided her constant care until her death in 1882. Dickinson was diagnosed in 1886 as having Bright’s disease, a kidney dysfunction that resulted in her death in May of that year.
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—
The Eyes around—had wrung them dry— 5
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset—when the King
Be witnessed—in the Room—
I willed my Keepsakes—Signed away
What portion of me be 10
Assignable—and then it was
There interposed a Fly—
With Blue—uncertain stumbling Buzz—
Between the light—and me—
And then the Windows failed—and then 15
I could not see to see—
The first line informs the reader that the experience in this poem is being described from a unique point of view. The persona of the poem is already dead and is looking back at the experience of dying. Oddly enough, the speaker focuses on the sound of a fly, something that most people would consider trivial during an incident of such monumental importance as one’s own death. This opening leads the reader to wonder why the fly is significant enough to be the speaker’s most immediate and enduring memory of the experience of death.
The speaker describes a stillness, or absence of movement and noise, in the room where the death scene takes place. The feeling in the room is compared to “the Stillness in the Air— / Between the Heaves of Storm.” This is a comparison to what is known as the eye of a hurricane, or the circular area of relative calm that is found at the center of a cyclone. The poem’s speaker suggests that there is a moment of absolute calm and quiet between the storms of life and death.
In these lines, Dickinson uses metonymy. “Eyes” represents the mourners themselves, who are observed standing around the bed of the dying person. Also, “Eyes” means, quite literally, the eyes of those same people who have been crying for the loved one who is dying. Their eyes “had wrung them dry,” meaning that the people had cried all the tears that they could during this exhausting death ritual. “Breaths” is also an example of metonymy, for the word represents both the people themselves and their breathing. The people at the death bed are “gathering firm,” meaning perhaps that they have gathered together to support each other in the fixed and unalterable understanding that the loved one will die, and they are waiting for the end to come. At the same time, their breathing has stopped shaking and trembling because they are calmly awaiting what is now inevitable.
In these lines, “that last Onset” probably means the final stage of the dying process. Because the mourners in the room were most likely to be nineteenth-century American Protestants, they would have been expecting some formal sign that their loved one had been welcomed into the Kingdom of God, or into the arms of Christ the “King.” Perhaps the speaker recognizes the eagerness of his or her loved ones to “witness” Christ in the room. This expectation is quite ironic because the poem’s speaker sees not Christ but a common blowfly.
- Into The Beautiful: Selected Poems of Emily Dickinson is performed by Meryl Streep and is available from Time Warner Audiobooks.
- Poems and Letters of Emily Dickinson is available from Harper Collins Audiobooks.
- A 1998 film titled Beauty Crowds Me, directed by Julie Trimingham and starring Denise Clark, features the poetry of Emily Dickinson.
In this stanza, the speaker describes the completion of personal business as an important part of the dying process. He or she has made a last will and testament, giving “Keepsakes,” or token possessions, away to relatives and friends. “Signed away / What portions of me be / Assignable” probably refers to the dying person’s request for the memorial ceremony and disposal of the body. These acts have more to do with the needs of the living than the needs of the dead, and yet they are commonly accepted and widely expected rituals of death and dying in Western society. In the midst of all this business activity, “There interposed a Fly—.” This could mean that the speaker is interrupted from the social ritual of death by the fly’s presence.
The color blue is usually Dickinson’s symbol for eternity. Here, perhaps it is used ironically because the fly, as a creature that lays its eggs in dead flesh, is usually symbolic of mortality. The fly’s buzz is described as “uncertain” and “stumbling,” perhaps indicating the way that the sound of a fly can move in and out of human consciousness. The fly comes between the speaker and the “light.” Here, light can have two meanings. Literally, it describes the actual light of day and touches upon the fact that the speaker’s sense of sight is failing at the moment of death. Figuratively, the “light” might mean the light of Christ, or the spiritual world. In any case, it is the sound of the fly that interrupts the speaker’s experience.
The “Windows” can have two possible meanings in this line. Perhaps the speaker is transposing the experience of the light failing (blindness) to the windows, describing the loss of the sense of sight in terms of an external, inanimate object. On the other hand, perhaps “Windows” is a metaphor for the eyes, much in the sense that people call eyes the windows of the soul. The final line of the poem is a description of blindness. On one level, it is the loss of the physical sense of sight. On another level, it might be a spiritual blindness, indicating that there is no great spiritual vision after death but rather nothingness. This second explanation is in keeping with Dickinson’s reputation as a skeptic, but it does not explain how the poem’s persona could be describing this incident after extinction.
Dickinson was fond of using oxymorons to assert the double truth of what was seemingly contradictory. She wrote of abstemious ecstacy, of hoary boys, and of piercing comfort. Likewise, death was, for Dickinson, the “enhancing shadow” of life—something that draws value to life even as it threatens it. In a dynamic similar to the Puritan ethic that views sorrow, trial, or threat as a necessary feature of a world finally defined by its participation in an unseen, divine justice, death is, for Dickinson, a true and serious sorrow that is necessary if we are to fully relish and appreciate our temporary freedom from its grasp.
In “I Heard a Fly Buzz—When I Died—,” death has already taken the speaker; the poem both visits and revisits its coming. Yet, the poem is equally concerned with life: it is preoccupied with the “Stillness” that rests between life and death; it repeatedly draws our attention to sight and sound; it gives us a room, and windows in that room. If, in the end, it documents the failure of these features of life, the poem manages to dignify them at the same time. After all, the postmortem speaker is presumably in a position to narrate for us the features of the afterworld. Drawn instead to focus on eyes, ears, windows, and house, we are brought features of the world made precious and poignant by their dissolution. Whether or not a transcendent reality awaits us after death is never fully solved in the poem. The high value of the small features of this world are, however, fully confirmed. If death is ushered in by a vivid fly and signaled by the disappearance of that fly with a dying person’s failed vision, we can perhaps be encouraged to appreciate the abundance of sensory experience we enjoy while alive. The oxymoronic “I Heard a Fly Buzz—When I Died—” is in this sense a death poem about life.
Public vs. Private Life
“Nature is a Haunted House—but Art—a House that tries to be Haunted,” Dickinson once wrote in a letter. Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud claimed that a house is the only consistent psychic symbol of the body. The household room in “I Heard a Fly Buzz—When I Died—” can be read as a symbol both of the body whose death is symbolized through “failed” windows, and of the haunted grasp of nature—and life—on the speaker.
Notorious for never marrying, for spending the majority of her time in the Amherst household where she grew up, and for composing her hundreds of poems in her own room there, Dickinson was perhaps the most domestic poet ever. She was, however, part of an unusually public household situated in the center of town near the parsonage, the town hall, and Grace Episcopal church, and one that frequently filled with the guests her socially active family entertained for teas, dinners, and parties. How isolating her life was has been a regular subject of debate, particularly among feminists seeking to understand Dickinson’s position as a woman in a restrictively sexist world. Feminist literary historian Sandra Gilbert has claimed, in her The Madwoman in the Attic, that Dickinson was “a helpless agoraphobic trapped in a room in her father’s house.” Modern poet Adrienne Rich, on the other hand, has called Dickinson a private rebel and a psychic escapee who won autonomy and mastery of life without having to venture away from her home. The poet made, Rich claims, a virtue of necessity.
The room of “I Heard a Fly Buzz—When I Died—” certainly supports the claim that Dickinson was able to be private and public at the same time. If we take the poem’s speaker to be Dickinson and if we take the group gathered in the death chamber as her public, we see a society composed of loved ones who enter into the home, rather than those whose place is beyond it. But even in the crowded room where the speaker dies, the speaker’s prime experience in “I Heard a Fly Buzz—When I Died—” is impenetrable by the witnesses. Instead it is the personal perceptions and observations of a buzz and failed light that define the poem and the experience of death. Finally, life transpires and expires in a private zone of mind and sensation that goes unshared; it seems that those who have gathered to witness the speaker see nothing and gather nothing of what transpires. Whether this solitude is enforced or assumed, jailing or liberating, is an issue as binding to questions of the personal lifestyle of Dickinson as it is to the debate surrounding the final fate of the poem’s speaker.
Additionally, in “I Heard a Fly Buzz—When I Died—,” readers are addressed intimately in the confidence of the speaker and are privy to the private, mental events that characterize death. Our reading of this poem more than one hundred years after it was written confirms this private observation’s grand and prolonged publicity. But did Dickinson have in mind the vast distribution and publication of her work? We cannot be sure. Dickinson herself published only ten or so poems during her lifetime. All her loved ones expressed great surprise upon her sister Lavinia’s discovery of nearly 2,000 neatly bundled poems after Emily’s death. Whether they were meant to become public, we do not know.
“I Heard a Fly Buzz—When I Died—” is a lyric poem composed in four quatrains, or four-line stanzas. The lines of each stanza alternate regularly between eight and six syllables. The rhyme scheme, on the other hand, is much less conventional, with “was/buzz” and “me/be” the only true rhymes. Dickinson creates other tonal harmony, though, in her rich, highly original images: “Heaves of Storm,” “Breaths ... gathering firm,” “Blue—uncertain stumbling Buzz,” “Windows failed.”
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, common English nouns and other words were often capitalized. Dickinson adopted this out-of-fashion form in this poem, capitalizing “Fly,” “Stillness,” “Room,” “Air,” “Heaves,” “Storm,” “Eyes,” Breaths,” “Onset,” “King,” “Keepsakes,” “Signed,” “Blue,” “Buzz,” and “Windows.” She does this, perhaps, because her poetry is a celebration of the exact, perfect word, and capitalization can be used to highlight the intensity of meaning.
Dickinson is also noted for her unusual handling of punctuation. In this poem, she uses dashes both at the ends of lines and between phrases. This peculiar technique has been the subject of much critical study, but it is generally believed that Dickinson,
Topics for Further Study
- What is the significance of the fly in this poem?
- If we conclude that the fly’s significance is a riddle, what can we conclude about the effect on the reader of such a riddle? Must all riddles have solutions? What kind of riddles refuse solutions?
- Pay attention to the meter of “I Heard a Fly Buzz—When I Died—.” What does that meter suggest about the rhythm of the speaker’s last moments? What happens to time—as expressed in syllable, sound, and beat—as this speaker’s lifetime ends?
who did not typically follow the standard rules of grammar, used dashes to indicate how words, phrases and clauses should be interpreted. The dashes in line one, for instance, isolate and intensify the surprising revelation that the “I” in the opening clause is speaking from the grave.”
It seems as through the episode in “I Heard a Fly Buzz—When I Died—” could be described by anyone, anywhere. Indeed, since the poem’s speaker is dead, we are given reason to believe that the message is timeless—that it concerns not just one person, but everyone who lives and dies. Nevertheless, the poem’s reference to anticipated arrival of the King suggests a specifically Christian view of death and dying. Even more particularly, the death chamber ritual of people gathering to witness both their friend’s death and the arrival of Christian salvation indicates that the episode is in keeping with religious and social rites of late nineteenth-century, Protestant New England.
A focus on immortal, general themes that yields, on closer reading, to an impression of culture and belief locked within strict Christian parameters is typical of Emily Dickinson’s poetry.
Compare & Contrast
- Late nineteenth century: The Civil War, as well as bacterial infection and widespread diseases such as consumption, made of death a familiar part of daily life in the United States.
Today: Through live news reports from both network and cable television, Americans viewers are presented with images death and tragedy from around the world with an immediacy previously inconceivable.
- Late nineteenth century: New Englander death rituals took place in the home, with the dying being surrounded by friends and family in household rooms temporarily made into death chambers. There, the company awaited signs of the dying’s heavenly salvation, received last requests and wills, and witnessed the repentance of sins during the last rites sacrament. The faithful dying sometimes gave witness to the approach, then presence of heavenly salvation. For the onlookers, contact with the dead and dying was considered an important part of living, in that it reminded them of the temporality of the body and the potential passage of the spirit into heavenly eternity.
Today: In most cases, the dying are removed from their homes and cared for in specialized facilities such as hospitals, nursing homes, and hospices. In all cases—and by law—corpses are removed from houses and prepared for burial by mortuary specialists. Even in instances in which the dead are viewed postmortem, their bodies are carefully prepared and doctored. In the eyes of the general public, contact with the dead and dying is seen—both rationally and irrationally— as dangerous, harmful, and disturbing.
- 1830-1855: Transcendentalism, an American philosophical and literary movement born in New England, is at its height. An outgrowth of Romanticism, the transcendentalist attitude opposed middle-class commercialism and looked for evidence of the divine in the world while conceiving very liberally of godliness. It gave priority to personal intuition, organized mysticism, and a broad optimism about human nature.
Today: While many people espouse views of divinity and have faith in a transcendent motor of the world we see, the domain of the mysterious—concerning aspects of everything from causes of death to weather patterns to human behavior—in increasingly collapsed by advances in human sciences.
Granddaughter of one of the founders of Amherst College and daughter of a Congressman, prominent lawyer, and champion of railroad development, she lived in a socially connected, distinguished family during some of the most consequential and tumultuous years of American history—from 1830-1886. In the United States, these were years of rapid economic expansion which saw burgeoning cities and expanding technology such as railroads. In addition, American culture was increasingly being defined by development within its own borders rather than by British influence, and Puritan and Calvinist religious traditions intermixed with newly ardent demands for an economically potent nation.
These changes were brought to their most violent expression by the Civil War (1861-1865), which galvanized both northern and southern Americans with notions of nationhood forged through bloody battle, for the sake of economic and cultural prosperity, with the blessing of God. Though the North and the South subscribed to similar ideals, they did so in ways that pitted them against each other: it was, above all, a fraternal war—a smashing of brethren in the name of a differently imagined national fate. Dickinson, however, rarely mentions the war in either her poetry or the many letters she left. Therefore, her readers have often considered her connection to the Civil War to be weak at best and have deemed her to be too interior a thinker, too private a person, to have been deeply affected by the war or greatly articulate on its effects.
This period was, however, Dickinson’s most prolific: out of approximately 1,700 poems, she wrote 852 during the years of the Civil War. And though her explicit references to battle are few, there is much to suggest that her poetry is rooted in consciousness of the war. “Sorrow seems to me more general than it did, and not the estate of a few persons, since the war began,” she wrote in one letter. Dickinson continued, “And if the anguish of others helped one with one’s own, now would be many medicines. Tis dangerous to value, for only the precious can alarm.” Her main literary correspondent, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, was a leading women’s rights and antislavery activist as well as a colonel in the Union Army who helped lead its first black regiment. Certainly, then, Dickinson was aware of the war and its impact, but just as the historical circumstances that inform “I Heard a Fly Buzz—When I Died—” soak through a larger, more abstract set of observations, her views on the war emerge through her thick and abstract observations on sorrow and on human fate in the widest sense.
The Amherst religious orthodoxies of Calvinist Congregationalism, Puritanism, and Protestant Christianity also emerge in a general sense from Dickinson’s contemplations on life, death, and afterlife; the nature of the sacred; and on the value of friendship. Champion of the sweetness to be found in bitter sadness, of the profound beauty of the austere everyday world, and of the nobility of those few truths that can withstand nature’s erosion and transformations, Dickinson seems, in many ways, to preach a Puritanical appreciation of the world. Certainly her usage of hymnology as poetic meter and her frequent references to God tie her to a Christian perspective. Her invocations of religion are, however, often subversive—particularly given that she lived in a deeply religious town. As in “I Heard a Fly Buzz—When I Died—,” the King is regularly invoked by Dickinson, but His presence is challenged.
The site of Dickinson’s most constant engagement was, of course, not nation, town, or church, but household: following seminary studies at Mount Holyoke College, she returned to her childhood home in the town center of Amherst, Massachusetts, when she was nineteen. At home she remained, increasingly so as she aged. There she participated in womanly household duties—baking bread and pudding, sewing, playing piano, and tending the garden. Her extensive reading and writing, however, were extremely unusual for a woman of her era, and she took great pains within her household to earn the privilege to keep unusual hours and forego the extensive visiting, housekeeping, and hostessing that were asked of her. She made, finally, a telescope of her house and her placement there; the simplest of perspectives, the most austere surroundings, allowed her the broadest of views.
The omnipresent fly in “I Heard a Fly Buzz—When I Died—” has been a problem for critics since the poem’s publication in 1896. Sharon Cameron, writing in her book Lyric Time: Dickinson and the Limits of Genre, believes that the fly plays an important role in the speaker’s experience of death. According to Cameron, the poem is, in part, about “the conflict between preconception and perception.” The person on his or her deathbed shifts perspective from “the ritual of dying” to “the fact of death.” Cameron argues that the fly, by interrupting the dying speaker with its “Blue—uncertain stumbling Buzz—” obliterates his or her false notions of death. Cameron sees the fly’s “stumbling” as evidence that it, too, is dying, and the speaker’s “experience becomes one with the fly’s.”
Inder Nath Kher also discusses the symbolism of the fly in his book The Landscape of Absence: Emily Dickinson’s Poetry. Kher believes that the sound of the fly represents “the last conscious link with reality.” Kher points out that the poem lacks any hint of a life after death. The buzz of the fly is described as “Blue,” and Kher, noting that blue is usually Dickinson’s symbol for eternity, suggests that in this poem it becomes “the symbol of complete extinction.”
Jhan Hochman’s articles appear in Democracy and Nature, Genre, ISLE, and Mosaic. He is the author of Green Cultural Studies: Nature in Film, Novel, and Theory (1998), and he holds a Ph.D in English and an M.A. in Cinema Studies. In the following essay, Hochman examines the motif of “I Heard a Fly Buzz—When I Died—” and examines the myth surrounding the fly.
What Do I Read Next?
- Three volumes of Emily Dickinson’s Letters were edited by Thomas H. Johnson and published by Harvard University Press in 1958. In prose that is often as evocative as her poetry, these letters document Dickinson’s friendships, preoccupations concerning writing (both hers and that of her contemporaries), and small or large loves.
- The Essential Dickinson is an excellent introductory volume of Dickinson’s poetry, edited and with an introduction by Joyce Carol Oates, a modern American poet, novelist, playwright, and critic.
- Published in 1955, The Poems of Emily Dickinson, Including Variant Readings Critically Compared with All Known Manuscripts is the most complete edition of Dickinson’s poetry.
- Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poetry, and the volume Aurora Leigh in particular, were named by Dickinson in a letter to Higginson as among her influences. Marian Erle’s speech in Book VI, verses 1079-1087 may have specifically influenced “I Heard a Fly Buzz—When I Died—.”
- Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass includes poetry as lengthy as Dickinson’s is brief and subject matter as public as Dickinson’s is private. Whitman was a contemporary of Dickinson who, like her, worked to define a distinctly American poetic idiom.
Picture a vast desert, sun glaring. There, in the distance, a figure barely staggers across the arid landscape, then buckles, falls prone, and finally rolls over to await the onset of death. Staring into the sun, the man anticipates he will meet his maker. Instead, there is the onset of circling vultures who eventually descend to consume his corpse.
Emily Dickinson had never seen a Western, let alone any film. If she had, she might have noticed the similarity between “I Heard a Fly Buzz—When I Died—” and this motif in the Western film. Or perhaps similar images had already been described in the written and oral stories of America’s invasion of the West—stories Dickinson might have read alone in her upstairs bedroom. Even in the enclosed space where the dying person lies in “I Heard a Fly Buzz—When I Died—,” the out-of-doors does seep in, as when the “Stillness in the Room” is said to be like the stillness “Between the Heaves of storm.” Dickinson’s “stillness” might be comparable to the eye of the storm, or simply a lull between storms. Calling upon an outdoor occurrence, Dickinson is likely indicating the short stillnesses between the dying person’s “storm” of heavy and troubled breathings—a storm that might be accompanied by the mourners tumultuous storm of mourning. The stillnesses between breaths are taut because each one might indicate death, at which time another storm of wailing might be taken up by the mourners. Or the stillness between storms might refer to the still moment of dying between the storm of life (earth) and the heaving storm of death (heaven). As the stormy breathings of the dying person were accompanied by the grievings of the onlookers, the stillness of the dying person is matched by the stillness of the mourners whose breath has been “gathering” up after the rain of tears and is now held “firm” like clouds regathering before the onset of another storm. Holding their breath, the mourners wait for the “Onset” of death and for the entrance of Christ the King to whisk the dying soul up to heaven. “Onset” has multiple applications to the dying scene. It can simultaneously mean an attack, a beginning (as of death), or the Advent, Christ’s return as predicted by Seventh-Day Adventists. Perhaps Christ bears comparison to the cavalry, or hero, riding up at the last moment to save the desperate victim.
But King Jesus and his heavenly hosts fail to materialize, and instead of the legions of winged seraphim, all that appears—from what is probably an open window—is an ordinary fly. Who is this fly that has interposed itself upon the high drama of a dying scene? Several answers are possible. In Dickinson’s poem “Those Cattle Smaller than a Bee,” though the fly is cited as an annoyance, Dickinson begs off pronouncing flies a scourge or a blessing and decides to leave the fly to nature’s judgment. The fly of “Those Cattle Smaller than a Bee” could be similar to the fly of “I Heard a Fly Buzz—When I Died—,” a creature that, while it might be annoying, is.still not labelled as either repellant or evil. Perhaps this fly could be Beelzebub, or the Lord of the Flies, the winged but fallen angel sometimes conflated with Satan and sometimes known as one of Satan’s officers—a fallen angel that has come to take the dead body to the Great Below. Beelzebub, as master of the Underworld, functions as an anti-Christ, as Death himself who, in Job 18:14, is called the “king of terrors.” The fly is also that creature known to lay eggs in dead flesh, whereupon maggots are hatched and feed until they become flies. This is the fly as a kind of scavenger only mediated by maggots. Whether the fly is some of these or all of these, the insect would seem to represent a failure in comparison to the image of Christ descending in his chariot with his blinding ranks of winged angels that accompany him in taking the dead soul to heaven.
The dying person is herself uncertain as to who the fly is or what it represents. There is some blue on the fly, which may give the victim hope. Although the blue on the average housefly is usually darkly iridescent, blue is the color of a clear sky and, as such, is said to draw the individual toward the infinite and awaken a yearning for purity. Blue has a solemn supraterrestrial quality that the Egyptians considered to be the color of truth. This is why sky-blue is the color of the threshold that is considered to separate humanity from its rulers, from the Great Beyond, and from Fate. Blue and white are the colors worn by the Virgin Mary, and they express a detachment from the things of this world and the flight of the liberated soul toward God. So despite the fly’s close association with fecal matter and decaying flesh, it is, nonetheless, a winged creature of the air. The dying person does not quite know what to make of the fly; this uncertainty is referred to in the poem as the fly’s “uncertain stumbling Buzz.” The uncertainty just might indicate that perhaps most of us have misunderstood flies. After all, are they not heavenly creatures? Some basis for this claim does exist, in that flies were sacred to the Ancient Greeks. Both Zeus and Apollo bear names that are related to flies. Some scholars theorize that flies were sacred to ancient Greeks because they evoked the turmoil of life on Olympus or the omnipresence of the gods.
“‘I Heard a Fly Buzz—When I Died—’ is a poem against the claim of knowing, against what it means to claim to know not only what will happen after death, but what a fly even is.”
The fly of “I Heard a Fly Buzz—When I Died—” gets between the dying person and the light, and its buzz between the dying person and the stillness. Dickinson wrote that the “Windows failed,” which may indicate that the victim’s eyes (the windows to the soul) stopped seeing, not that the light from the sun stopped shining. Once the fly buzzes in, the speaker’s experience of death becomes the experience of the fly. The fly not only blots out sound and light, but it obliterates all thought of anything else. The dying person is unable “to see to see”—to see in order to understand what is happening. Death is thus rendered unknowable. With no claim to knowledge of one’s end, “I Heard a Fly Buzz—When I Died—” might be designated as agnostic, gently antireligious, irreverent, and even humorously sarcastic, considering the poem’s unexpected visitation of the fly instead of Jesus who so many people, even today, claim to know so well. “I Heard a Fly Buzz—When I Died—” is a poem against the claim of knowing, against what it means to claim to know not only what will happen after death, but what a fly even is.
After a reading of Dickinson’s poem, does it not seem right to fashion a newer, bolder myth for death and for flies? Why not a tale of the fly as the soul’s liberator, a winged creature who hates seeing any winged thing trapped (and the soul is—according to a tradition beginning since at least Plato—winged). In this myth, which is, as a matter of fact, being hatched in the corpus of Dickinson’s poem, the fly would save the soul by laying eggs in the corpse. The maggot offspring would then consume away the decaying flesh and thereby free the winged soul from the entrapping body. And then, in the company of the iridescently blue ranks of the omnipresent and heaven-sent fly, the soul is accompanied upward with its hosts. With a playful reading such as this, the fly might no longer be considered a mere “buzzard,” a miniature buzzing vulture. Thus, the fly could be “re-mythed,” not as the soul’s tormentor, but as the soul’s savior. We might even venture so far as to say that, after reading Emily Dickinson’s, “I Heard a Fly Buzz—When I Died—,” neither fly nor fly swatter will ever look quite the same.
Source: Jhan Hochman, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1999.
Michael Lake is a published poet who holds a M.A. in English from Eastern Illinois University. In the following essay, Lake examines how “I Heard a Fly Buzz—When I Died—” draws upon both Christian and Romantic sentiments in its examination of death.
We who live at the end of the twentieth century in North America have a difficult time understanding the intimate familiarity our ancestors had with death. After antibiotics, disinfectants, and mass vaccinations, not to mention the delicate denial of death and decay fostered by the funeral and cosmetic industries, we often succeed in avoiding a direct confrontation with death until our own, final demise. Any discussion of the details of dying is now deemed “morbid,” even antisocial, in a culture that chooses to ignore death and to focus instead upon staying “young” at any cost. This was certainly not the case in Emily Dickinson’s America, however. Not only were mortality rates higher and life much less predictable, especially for the young, but the long Christian practice of contemplating death in order to stir up remorse for sin and contempt for the transitory life of this world had also not yet died from American popular culture.
In many ways, Emily Dickinson lived within the cusp of two worldviews. The Puritan perspective that had seen God’s Providence in all life’s situations, whether pleasant or painful, was already losing its grip upon popular consciousness in America, while a secular materialist view that refused to speculate beyond phenomenal surfaces was steadily usurping its place. For her own part, however, Dickinson was extremely uneasy with her ambivalent position. On one hand, her youthful rebellion against the mindless conformity demanded by bourgeois Christianity still raged within her. Moreover, she was curious about and very open to the many scientific discoveries that were overwhelming traditional beliefs during the nineteenth century. But on the other hand, she so greatly feared the extinction of the self and the loss of loved ones she observed in death that she desperately hoped for ultimate immortality. She had struggled hard to adopt Emerson’s Romantic Transcendentalism in an attempt to reconcile a belief in a spiritual reality with scientific materialism, but she was too much the Puritan to settle for nice compromises. She opted instead to see the human condition with “double vision.” This is why her poems about death (and they are many) seem to contradict one another when read together.
In her poem “I Heard a Fly Buzz—When I Died—,” we have a wonderful meditation upon death set firmly within Dickinson’s cusped point of view. This poem, dramatically exploring a subjective experience of dying, draws upon both orthodox Christian and more recent Romantic sentimentalist conventions of death poetry for its thematic presentation. But the poem’s grisly irony exposes the utter estrangement a new “post-Christian” suffers at the prospect of a purely physical world that offers no transcendence or survival of consciousness beyond the grave.
The tradition of memento mori, a Latin phrase that literally means “remember you shall die,” comes from the Christian Middle Ages. Hamlet’s contemplation of death and mortality while peering into the sockets of “poor” Yorik’s skull is a memorable example of this custom. But the poet who most closely resembles Emily Dickinson in his poetic obsession with death and loss is John Donne, a figure who also dwelt ambivalently within the cusp of two eras—the late medieval and the early modern. He went so far in stirring up the recollection of his own death as to sleep in a casket after his conversion in midlife to a deeper Christian commitment and his ordination into the Anglican priesthood. But where Donne’s crisis of faith lay in whether he would personally find salvation at the end of a life that had so early turned toward “sin,” Dickinson’s lay much deeper. She doubted whether God and the human “soul” as an entity of continuing self-awareness really existed at all. Given the depth of her doubt, then, Dickinson’s poetically representing death and the experience of dying could never accomplish what the tradition of memento mori was originally intended to do, that is, to bring the meditator to a change of perception and to an affirmation of divine transcendence. Her death poems could only present her most cherished wishes or her most dreaded fears.
In The Long Shadow: Emily Dickinson’s Tragic Poetry, literary critic Clark Griffith noted that Dickinson’s death poems always ask at least one of three questions: “What is death?”; “Why is death?”; and “What is it like to die?” As an answer to this last question, “I Heard a Fly Buzz—When I Died—” allows us to experience death vicariously through a first-person speaker’s reminiscence about the sensations of a death yet to come, a rhetorical device called “prolepsis” (the representation of a future event as though it had already occurred). Of course, the appearance of a buzzing fly in its very first line signals the deep irony of the poem. In violation of the Romantic sentimentalist conventions exemplified in such works as those of the then-popular “death” poet Lydia Hunt Sigourney, “I Heard a Fly Buzz—When I Died—” actually desecrates the melodramatic sensibility prescribed by that currently popular genre with the intrusion of a buzzing fly into a perfectly composed tableau of the moriens or “dying one” and the assembled grieving loved ones. In fact, viewing the poem as a whole, we see that this “Fly” and its buzzing dominate three of the four stanzas. But Dickinson turns the poem’s bitter irony to a more profound purpose than mere satire.
Accurately depicting the dimming consciousness and sensual distortions undergone by the dying in compressed and suggestive imagery, this poem is a gem among the many jewels among Dickinson’s poetry because of its “slantness”—its oblique but “revelatory” language. From the first line, which presents us with the dramatic situation, to the twelfth, when “There interposed a Fly,” the speaker sets the scene leading up to the dramatic event. But all the sensuous descriptions of the sounds in the room and the demeanor of its occupants act as counterpoint to the fly’s insistent buzzing. For example, the “Stillness in the Room,” the quiet of impending death, forms an island of silence like the quiet “Between the Heaves of Storm” (line 4). Moreover, the word “Heaves,” meaning both lifting with an effort and rising and falling rhythmically, conjures up not only the deafening blasts of a violent storm, but also the rhythmic rattling and rasping after breath the dying often suffer during their “throes.”
In the second stanza, the moriens distinguishes the mourners about her by their body parts and physical sounds, their “Eyes” and “Breaths.” Also like the still point in the midst of a storm, the “Eyes around—had wrung them[selves] dry / And Breaths were gathering firm” (lines 5-6). Worn out with weeping, the mourners hold their breaths, both in
“... [Dickinson] was too much the Puritan to settle for nice compromises.”
sympathy with the dying one’s struggles and in anticipation of “that last Onset—when the King / Be witnessed—in the Room—” (lines 7-8). The word “Onset,” by the way, can signify either a “beginning” of an action or an “attack” by an enemy. But whether the “beginning of the end” or the “final assault” of death, all in the room, in keeping with the conventions of nineteenth-century sentimentalist death lyrics, expect an “epipHeard a Fly Buzzhany,” a sign of the Divine presence, to signal the departure of the soul into glory.
In anticipation of this grand event, the fictive “I” “willed my Keepsakes—Signed away / What portions of me be / Assignable—” (lines 9-11). One must not fail to detect Dickinson’s irony in this passage. Using the language of contract and common law (remember, her father was a lawyer), Dickinson describes the dying one’s preparation for her approaching demise in terms of an exchange of property. In my opinion, Dickinson uses this language to ridicule bourgeois acquisitiveness as well as the smugly middle-class conventions of Sigourney’s death poetry. A far more orthodox Christian presentation would have shown the moriens relinquishing her passion for “filthy lucre” and treasures that “pass away” rather than making sure that her “Assignable” “portions” are properly disposed of, especially when anticipating the advent of the “King.” Nevertheless, no King shows up, for “then it was / There interposed a Fly—.”
As mentioned above, this buzzing fly dominates the poem, and there has been much critical discussion about its import within the poem. Interestingly, Dickinson had previously used the image of flies buzzing at a window to signify a death. The poem “How Many Times These Low Feet Staggered—” sets the reader a riddle with its line “Buzz the dull flies—on the chamber window—” indicating the negligence of the “Indolent Housewife—in Daisies—lain!” In other words, the house is in disarray because the woman whose social responsibility it had been to “keep” the house has had the audacity to die. But in the poem at hand, the “disorder” the fly portends has metaphysical ramifications. For example, to “interpose” oneself doesn’t just mean to “come between”; it also carries the added signification of to “get in the way.” This interposing fly actually obstructs the light coming in from the window. Still, we would be overburdening the metaphor to note that Beelzebub, the “Lord of the Flies,” would certainly delight in coming between a dying soul and the “light.” Our fly here is much less sinister. After all, its buzz is “uncertain—stumbling” (line 13), paralleling the fragile mortality and failing consciousness of the poem’s speaker herself. Besides, the fact that the buzz is “Blue” (an example of “synesthesia,” that is, the melding of two sensations into one) usually indicates “eternity” in Dickinson’s color palette, although in this case, “extinction” may be its symbolic value. No, the fly stands for the ultimate destiny of all corporeal existence: decay, disintegration, and nothingness.
When “the Windows failed—and then / I could not see to see—” (lines 15-16), the speaker leaves the buzzing and the mourners behind in the room and proceeds on to what? Dickinson, of course, leaves the question unanswered in this poem. But that buzzing fly discloses an abyss. If modern materialism is right in its godlessness and the universe is subject to endless cycles of growth, death, and decay, then life has no ultimate transcendent meaning. As much as some critics extol Emily Dickinson as some sort of “protoexistentialist,” there is also much in her verse to argue that she was not at all comfortable with nihilism. Behind the irony in her apparent lampoon of the popular death poetry of her day lurks an agonized question. Is death an empty end to a life without metaphysical meaning? In the other poems she wrote about death, she asked different questions and came up with different answers.
Source: Michael Lake, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1999.
Kristina Zarlengo, who received her doctorate in English from Columbia University in 1997, taught literature and writing for five years at Columbia University. A scholar of modern American literature, her articles have appeared in academic journals and various periodicals. In the following essay, Zarlengo analyzes Dickinson’s use of the senses of sound and sight in “I Heard a Fly Buzz—When I Died—.”
The packed first line of “I Heard a Fly Buzz— When I Died—” is like an overture to an opera: it introduces us to the themes and sounds the larger piece will deliver in full. First, our attention is drawn to sound—we learn of a familiar, suggestive noise: a buzz. Then, even as “died” repeats the vowel sound of “Fly,” we learn that the small and common noise of a buzz is a distinctive feature of dying. The association is surprising. It is hard to imagine a more quotidian or minute creature than a fly; how strange, then, that the mysterious, enormous passage from life to death should happen to the sound of its flight. Finally, we learn in the first line that the speaker has the authority of having already trespassed the border between life and death. We are given to understand that we receive the poem’s message from someplace beyond our world and our consciousness. The association of dying with the noise of a common insect is all the more jarring coming from such an unusual authority. The poem’s sound, ironic mixture of the common and the grand, and transcendent wisdom are unpacked during the remainder of this remarkably dense, brief poem.
“I Heard a Fly Buzz—When I Died—” reads immediately as a hymn-like, firsthand description of a death scene; like much of Dickinson’s poetry, it yields more and more information as it is repeatedly read. Close reading rewards attention to the details of the poem with a surprising nest of insights as well as riddles, whose solutions are sometimes suggested, sometimes evaded. The form of the poem is the common meter hymnal Dickinson preferred: each of the four stanzas is four lines—a quatrain; the lines alternate between eight and six syllables each; the dominant foot is the iamb, which is one unaccented syllable followed by one accented syllable. Read aloud, the lines are alternately of three or four iambs, adding up to an easily memorable song-like rhythm of ta-TA, ta-TA, ta-TA, ta-TA; ta-TA, ta-TA, ta-TA (pause).
The form of most religious hymns, this lyric pattern usually has the lulling, regular beat of a metronome and can overwhelm the content of the words with their highly regular expression in sound. In “I Heard a Fly Buzz—When I Died—,” however, Dickinson’s pattern is broken visually (as read silently) by her use of dashes, which suggest pauses, and capital letters, which suggest uncommon emphasis. Audibly (as read aloud), the sound pattern is broken by sequences of unstressed syllables, such as “in the Room” and “in the Air,” and by another dimension of sound: the poem’s rhymes. The poem’s only traditional, full rhyme comes in the last stanza, with the words “see” and “me.” But in the first and second stanzas, the second and fourth lines all end in “m” sounds—they rhyme a little, in end consonants only. These partial rhymes suggest unity among the stanzas’ words—and by extension the ideas they express—but do not deliver it so perfectly that we are lulled to sleep by sets of overly parallel sounds. They also suggest imperfect pairings, and these sounds that are almost, but not quite, alike finally yield to the last stanza’s perfect rhyme, delivering an impression of unity achieved at the moment of death.
Through these sounds, Dickinson also addresses sound as a subject of “I Heard a Fly Buzz— When I Died—.” It is the sound of the buzz that brings us into this meditation on death; this sound is contrasted twice in the first stanza to “Stillness.” Arriving in the midst of total silence, it is, ironically, a loud, large buzz. The second and third stanzas then address sight: eyes are dry, waiting to witness something as yet unseen; like the silence between “Heaves of Storm,” eyes and vision are empty, waiting. Then, the speaker wills and signs away “What portion of me be / Assignable—“: what can be written and recorded of the speaker’s person has been divided out and left behind when, in the final stanza, we are brought back to the buzz. This time, however, the noise affects sight, blocking light; then, the windows fail; then, sight fails and the speaker is dead. The buzz, furthermore, is blue—sight and sound have mixed. Is this synaesthesia a self-referential echo of the capacity of the poem’s language to be expressive visually on the page or to be audibly spoken, like a hymn? Or does a perfect combination of sight and sound always lead to a perspective beyond life? Is this synaes-thesia a feature of death, or a feature of the life the speaker has just lost? Such questions are posed all the more poignantly in the disturbed, imperfect rhythm of Dickinson’s hymn.
The imperfection of Dickinson’s rhymes, her heavy use of dashes, and her ambiguous grammar and syntax were evidence to early readers of her poetry that she was a flawed poet. Though she was well enough supported by friends and family to warrant publication of several volumes of poetry shortly after her death, Dickinson’s first reviews measured her work against an ideal of more perfectly rhymed, lengthy, strictly grammatical poetry. “Poetry has been defined as the best thought in the best words,” wrote an anonymous British reviewer in an 1891 edition of the London Daily News. Dickinson’s verses, he continued, “are conspicuously in the worst possible words, and the thought, as far as
“It is hard to imagine a more quotidian or minute creature than a fly; how strange, then, that the mysterious, enormous passage from life to death should happen to the sound of its flight.”
any thought can be detected, is usually commonplace or absurd.” Even Dickinson’s early supporters—most were Americans—were frugal with their praise. Literary critic Maurice Thompson wrote in 1891: “In all my reading I have not found a more interesting book of verse; one with so many beauties almost buried by so many blemishes. The good things in it are like incomparable crystals set in ugly fragments of worthless stone.” By 1924, she was taken more seriously, but even in the midst of praise of her work that did much to stimulate reconsideration of her achievement, fellow poet Conrad Aiken, in his introduction to the volume of her poetry he edited, called her “brilliant,” yes, but also “erratic.” Again, his distaste was for her form. “Her disregard for accepted forms or for regularities was incorrigible. Grammar, rhyme, metre—anything went by the board as it stood in the way of thought or freedom of utterance.” Indeed, early editions of Dickinson’s poems attempted to correct her imperfections: in one early printing of “I Heard a Fly Buzz—When I Died—,” for instance, “in the room” was changed to “round my form” so that it would perfectly rhyme—rather than being merely consonant—with “storm.”
It is the critical estimate of the twentieth century, and in particular the rise of “free verse”—the unrhymed, meter-free poetry that has gained respect, then predominance through the work of Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound and others—that have both made Dickinson’s verse seem to modern eyes highly patterned in some ways, deliciously irregular in others, and unambiguously brilliant. This estimate is highly informed by hindsight; in her own day, Dickinson was considered not only unpleasantly unusual inas much as she was a “poetess” (who, like her contemporaries Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Christina Rossetti, was tolerated as capable only of sentimental, small successes), but also insofar as her poetic form was, in the eyes of her peers, unpleasantly chaotic in its disregard (understood as incapacity) for traditional poetic form. Today, Dickinson’s unique, brave tailoring of language to common but grand subject matter is widely hailed, even venerated. In her day, however, it signified nothing but mediocrity.
Even as Dickinson broke with the formal traditions that were upheld by her female poet contemporaries, she did not eschew them as her contemporary Whitman did. Where he did not begin to observe rhyme or meter—and indeed celebrated his disposal of them— Dickinson observed, yet then broke, her rhymes and meters. Thematically, too, she invokes the holiest themes of her day, only to break with them. Hymns, after all, were predominant in the New England of her day as liturgical forms—they were part of worshiping a glorious God. Is “I Heard a Fly Buzz—When I Died—” a celebration of a Protestant God? Yes and no. Our attention is brought to life after death—indeed we are confronted in the poem with a speaker whose very description of dying affirms that beyond life, one can still sing. More important, our attention is emphatically drawn to the moment when the divine—“the King”—is to appear in the silent, bright gulf between life and death to escort the speaker to the beyond. But does salvation occur? If so, it occurs somehow in conjunction with a fly and a mere buzz, of all things—associations that are already somewhat blasphemous. Perhaps we cannot be certain that salvation occurs at all. Perhaps the failing windows are not just those of the speaker, or those she sees in the room she is dying away from, but those between this world and the next. The poem is ambiguous, open to being read as testimony to the nothing that persists beyond our worldly sense perceptions of light and sound. This could be a larger blasphemy—a hymn that invokes the King only to then cast doubt upon his presence.
One popular hymn of Dickinson’s era is, like many hymns, still familiar to us in tune, though less often in its content. The lyrics to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” are, however, a valuable Civil War cultural artifact, particularly in their combined celebration of God, nation, and soldier: “I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel / As ye deal with my contemners, so you with my grace shall deal / Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel / Since God is marching on.” God and human heroism were also Dickinson’s perpetual themes; but her invocations are always also questions—she summons up such themes not for the sake of worship but for the sake of posing riddles. Whole revelation is refused; instead, she gives us ironic incompletion, quests without conclusions, doubt about the very sacredness of objects of worship. “I don’t wonder that the good angels weep—and bad ones sing songs,” she wrote. And, in a poem about the Civil War dead, “A bayonet’s contrition / Is nothing to the dead.” However wrong we may now consider the early opinion of Dickinson to have been, we can hardly be surprised at it. Deeply original, she trafficked in the most familiar and sacred subjects and forms of her day, only to trouble them, worry that they were inadequate, and question their value. Her originality was also reactionary and critical. What she perpetually delivers, however, is a somber delight in critical inquiry, in the importance of the details of the world. In the end, it is neither life nor death, but a stalled, bright moment between the two that we are vividly delivered with “I Heard a Fly Buzz—When I Died—.” Delayed in riddle, wrapped up in suspense about assumptions Dickinson both asserts and refutes, we are, when contemplatively, attentively reading this poem, brought into confrontation not just with our world or the mystery of what lies beyond it, but with the mystery of our world.
Source: Kristina Zarlengo, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1999.
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