I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died

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-
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
Could make Assignable–and then
There interposed a Fly–

With blue, uncertain stumbling buzz
Between the light–and me–
And the Windows failed–and then
I could not see to see–

Written in 1862, ʻI heard a Fly buzz-
when I diedʼ was first published in Emily Dickinsonʼs third posthumous collection of poetry, Poems by Emily Dickinson, in 1896. The poem has been an object of much critical debate. In fact, since the poemʼs publication, there has been wide critical divergence over the symbolic function of the fly as a symbol and its relationship to the death of the poemʼs presumptive speaker.
Heaves: this word has many meanings. It can mean force or strenuous effort. In colloquial English, the word is associated with an attack of vomiting.
Onset: the beginning of something, particularly something difficult or unpleasant. The word can also mean
the initial attack in a military conflict.
Keepsakes: mementos or small items or gifts kept because they bring memories to mind.
Interposed: to place yourself or something else between two people or two different objects.

Summary /Analysis

This thought-provoking and even disturbing poem open in an unusual and arresting manner. The speaker tells us that at the moment of death, she heard a ʻFly buzzʼ. In typical Dickinson fashion, the poet attempts to make the abstract concrete through the association of two dissimilar qualities, equating the heavy, oppressive feeling associated with her death bed to the ʻStillness in the Air Between the Heaves of Stormʼ.
In the second stanza, the poet focuses on the friends and relations who have presumably gathered to view the last moments of the speakerʼs life. American attitudes towards death in the nineteenth century remained largely unaltered from previous centuries: death was an uncomfortable and undeniable reality of daily life. By 1850, when Emily was just 20 years old, life expectancy for an American adult had reached just 39 years of age. It is no wonder, then, that Dickinson puzzled and pondered over death in so many of her poems. Over the span of a few short months in 1844 when the poet was just 13 years old, an unusually large number of deaths were recorded amongst friends and family of the Dickinsonsʼ, culminating with the death of her friend and cousin, Sophia Holland. The young poet was permitted to keep vigil at her bedside. As Sophia neared death, Dickinson was mesmerized by the otherworldly smile that animated her friendʼs features. Many years later, the poet revealed how much this experience had marked her. She claimed it had sent her into a deep depression that required a long stay with her Aunt Lavina in Boston.
Here in this poem, she reflects a curiously nineteenth-century attitude towards death, when it was widely believed that the final moments of life provided a glimpse as to the destination of the dying personʼs soul. It is this sense of expectation that Dickinson alludes to when she speaks of the ʻBreathsʼ of the onlookers ʻgathering firmʼ.
In a surreal touch, those keeping this bedside vigil are reduced to body parts. They become ʻEyesʼ and ʻBreathsʼ and we learn absolutely nothing of their experience connection to the speaker. In what is presumably an allusion to Christ the King, in the final two lines of the stanza, we learn that those present wait in eager anticipation of the coming of the King:

For that last Onset-when the King
Be witnessed–in the Room.

In the next quatrain, the poet prepares for the final moment of life by assigning away everything that one expects to leave behind at the point of death:

I willed my Keepsakes-Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable […]

This is followed by a troubling revelation. Instead of the arrival of Christ or indeed any sign of salvation, the speaker is greeted by the buzzing of a fly. This ʻBlueʼ, ʻuncertainʼ and ʻstumblingʼ fly must be viewed as the antithesis of the surety and purpose afforded by a belief in an afterlife. As the poem draws to a close, the darkness and shadows begin to close in on the speaker. The final line of the poem captures a sense of finality that only death can bring:
I could not see to see-

Stylistic Features

From fifteenth-century chapbooks right through to the more sophisticated seventeenth-century works such as Jeremy Taylorʼs Holy Dying, there has been along with tradition in Western European literature that has centered on the notion of the good death. This lyrical poem, along with many others by Emily Dickinson, belongs to a sub-genre of poetry known as mortuary poetry. Traditionally, such poems describe the last moments of the dead or dying from the perspective of the living. However, in this poem, Dickinson subverts the genre and presents the reader with a disturbing account of death from the perspective of the dying person.
In the poem, all our expectations concerning the final moments of life are undermined. This process begins with the disturbing opening line, which shocks the reader into contemplating the full reality of the speakerʼs death:
I heard a Fly buzz–when I died–

This is one of Emily Dickinsonʼs finest opening lines. It effectively juxtaposes the seemingly inconsequential ʻFlyʼ with the momentous moment of death. In fact, the movement from one to the other is so rapid that the reader is left reeling. The inclusion of the two dashes in this line further disorientates and confuses us. Notice how the dashes somehow diminish the importance of what is being said here. It is as if the speaker is recounting the moment of her death in an offhand manner that is strangely removed from the gravity of the experience being described. The predominance of the personal pronoun ʻIʼ gives the poem a curiously voyeuristic appeal that is difficult to ignore. In the course of the poem, the poet vividly describes the movement away from the conscious, living world towards the finality of death.
As the light slowly fades and the presences in the room become dissociated and disembodied, the reader is made to experience a sense of tense expectation. It is a characteristic feature of Dickinsonʼs poetry that the abstract is made concrete through unusual associations. Here in this poem, in order to create such a sense of expectation, the poet employs a simile that likens the heavy stillness in the room to the calm ʻBetween the Heaves of Stormʼ.

However, what is so unsettling about this poem is the fact that this sense of expectation is never rewarded. The expected arrival of the ʻKingʼ and its implied promise of salvation is interrupted by a mere ʻFlyʼ.
In this manner, Dickinson raises some unsettling questions about death. The fly, of course, has frequently been associated with death.
Presumably, Dickinson is referring to the common bluebottle fly, a species of fly that frequently lays its eggs in decaying meat. This uncomfortable reality about the fly forces the reader to consider the physical reality of death. Furthermore, the fly has associations with evil.
In Colin de Plancyʼs Dictionnaire Infernal, first published in 1862, Beelzebub, the Lord of the Flies and one of the chief devils in hell, is depicted as a blue bottle. Here in Dickinsonʼs poem, the ʻFlyʼ (notice the capital letter) is made to interpose ʻBetween the lightʼ and the speaker and as a result, she ʻcould not see to seeʼ. The buzzing of the fly completely absorbs the speakerʼs perception and consciousness. In order to convey fully the presence of the fly in the room, the reader relies on complex language devices. In particular, alliteration and synaesthesia render the presence of the fly a visceral one for the reader. The colour blue is made to buzz and the repetition of bʼ and ʻsʼ sounds create a random and disoriented feeling to the flyʼs movement that reinforces the sense of meaninglessness running throughout the poem.

Consequently, the image of the fly forces the reader to consider the possibility of a malevolent or at best meaningless afterlife that results in decay. ʻI heard a Fly buzz-when I diedʼ relies heavily on a formal metric pattern: trimeter and iambic tetrameter lines with four stresses in the first and third lines of each stanza. Dickinson normally relies on this hymnal metre when she is at her most formal.

However, here the rhythmic insertion of the long dash interrupts the metre and contributes to the sense of uncertainty as the fly stumbles aimlessly around the room. By employing a formal hymnal metre that one would associate with a church service only to interrupt it, Dickinson further disorientates the reader. It is as if she is saying that in the face of death, nothing, not even the religious and social formalities of the funeral service has meaning.
Interestingly, the rhyming scheme also mirrors the thematic and metric progression of the poem. All the rhymes leading up to the final quatrain are half-rhymes (ʻRoomʼ/ʻStormʼ, ʻfirmʼ/ʻRoomʼ, ʻbeʼ/ʻFlyʼ), while the only full or exact rhyme occurs in the last three lines:

Between the light–and me–
And the Windows failed–and then
I could not see to see–

This builds tension and suggests that a sense of completion is only achieved
with the death of the speaker. However, this sense of completion is not matched by any revelation, yet the speakerʼs consciousness remains. Her voice speaks to us, as it were, from beyond the grave. Yet all that voice is silenced the instant its senses cease to function. Precisely at the moment, we need to hear from the speaker the most, we are left with nothing but a series of disturbing questions: Who is the King? Is it, Jesus Christ or Death itself? More worryingly, we are faced with the possibility that this King maybe something deeply disturbing, like the Lord of the Flies or Beelzebub. In the words of Terry Heller:
The fly ushers the poet across the threshold suggested by its ʻBlue̶ uncertain stumbling Buzz. ʼ
The fly points the way, but the living cannot interpret its buzz and her voice stops.
Finally, while the death that occurs in this poem is presented as being painless, the vision of that death is a horrifyingly empty one. This is a truly fascinating, thought-provoking and unsettling piece of writing.

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