A critical reading of a classic Dickinson poem by Dr Oliver Tearle
Death is a theme that looms large in the poetry of Emily Dickinson (1830-86), and perhaps no more so than in the celebrated poem of hers that begins ‘I heard a Fly buzz – when I died’. This is not just a poem about death: it’s a poem about the event of death, the moment of dying. Below is the poem, and a brief analysis of its language and meaning.
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
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
I could not see to see –
‘I heard a Fly buzz – when I died’: summary
In summary, ‘I heard a Fly buzz – when I died’ is a poem spoken by a dead person: note the past tense of ‘died’ in that first line. The speaker is already dead, and is telling us about what happened at her deathbed. (We say ‘her’ but the speaker could well be male – Dickinson often adopts a male voice in her poems, so the point remains moot.)
And dying, one of the most momentous events in anyone’s life (and certainly the last), is foregrounded in that opening line – though not as much as it could be. No, first we have to heard about the fly that buzzed.
The opening line, ‘I heard a Fly buzz – when I died’, is the opposite of bathos (that anti-climax where one starts grandly and then fizzles out, such as in Alexander Pope’s celebrated line from The Rape of the Lock: ‘Dost sometimes counsel take, and sometimes tea’): here, we start with the small – the literally small – and end with the momentous, ‘died’.
Everything, we are told, was still and silent around the speaker’s deathbed. Even the mourners attending her have stopped weeping: ‘The Eyes around – had wrung them dry’, meaning ‘their eyes had wrung themselves dry’ or ‘they had wrung their eyes dry’ with crying. Now’s not the time for tears: only stillness and silence. Everyone, Dickinson’s speaker tells us, seemed braced for the moment when the speaker of the poem would die, and the ‘King’ would be ‘witnessed’ in the room – presumably King Death, coming to take the speaker away.
The speaker had just signed her will doling out her ‘Keepsakes’ to her beneficiaries, and it was then, we are told, after her last will and testament had been signed, that the fly ‘interposed’ itself in the scene. ‘With Blue – uncertain – stumbling Buzz’ uses Dickinson’s trademark dashes to great effect, conveying the sudden, darting way flies can move around a room, especially around light.
We may not have thought of such a movement as ‘stumbling’ (can flying insects stumble?) and so the presence of the word pulls us up short, makes us stumble over Dickinson’s line.
‘I heard a Fly buzz – when I died’: analysis
This fly comes between the speaker and ‘the light’. Has she seen the light? How should we interpret this? Is it simply the candle or lamp in the room lighting it (such as would attract a bluebottle to it), or is the ‘light’ signalling the arrival of that ‘King’, Death? Has he come for her?
And why then do the Windows fail, and how should we analyse that final line, ‘I could not see to see’? Perhaps one clue is offered by the way we talk, in the English language, of ‘seers’ and ‘second sight’: seers were often blind in that they couldn’t physically see, but in another sense they saw further than everyone else because they had the gift of foresight and prophecy (consider Tiresias from Oedipus Rex). ‘Second sight’, similarly, is a supposed form of clairvoyance whereby the gifted person has access to an invisible world – the world beyond death, for instance.
So the speaker could be saying (at the moment of death itself?) that she could no longer physically see in order to find her way forward into the next world. Consider the more everyday phrase, ‘I can’t do right for doing wrong’: Dickinson’s last line might be analysed as a cryptic variation on that expression.
Flies, of course, are associated with death and the dead: they feed on the dead. Yet the presence of this fly remains puzzling. How should we analyse ‘I heard a Fly buzz’ in terms of its central image or object: the fly itself? Is this association between death and flies feeding on corpses and carrion all there is to it, or is it the deliberate juxtaposition of the very small (a common insect) and the very big (death itself) that Dickinson wants us to think about? The question remains open.
Dickinson’s rhymes can often seem haphazard: half-rhymes, off-rhymes, words that have only the vaguest sounds in common between them. Yet there is a delicate interplay of rhymes in ‘I heard a Fly buzz’. ‘Room’ and ‘Storm’ in that first stanza are echoed in the following stanza, which has ‘firm’ and ‘Room’; ‘died’ becomes tautened, or dried out, into ‘dry’; in the third stanza, the ‘be’ that rhymes with ‘Fly’ calls up the ‘Buzz’ that is suggested by be(e), as well as the rhyming ‘me’ and ‘see’ in that final stanza. (‘Buzz’ is also foreshadowed by ‘was’ in the preceding stanza, with this small verb being retrospectively encouraged to join in the onomatopoeia of ‘Buzz’.)
In the last analysis, ‘I heard a Fly buzz – when I died’ is one of Emily Dickinson’s most popular poems probably because of its elusiveness, and because – like many of her great poems, and her meditations on death – it raises more questions than it settles. How do you interpret the fly in this poem?
About Emily Dickinson
Perhaps no other poet has attained such a high reputation after their death that was unknown to them during their lifetime. Born in 1830, Emily Dickinson lived her whole life within the few miles around her hometown of Amherst, Massachusetts. She never married, despite several romantic correspondences, and was better-known as a gardener than as a poet while she was alive.
Nevertheless, it’s not quite true (as it’s sometimes alleged) that none of Dickinson’s poems was published during her own lifetime. A handful – fewer than a dozen of some 1,800 poems she wrote in total – appeared in an 1864 anthology, Drum Beat, published to raise money for Union soldiers fighting in the Civil War. But it was four years after her death, in 1890, that a book of her poetry would appear before the American public for the first time and her posthumous career would begin to take off.
Dickinson collected around eight hundred of her poems into little manuscript books which she lovingly put together without telling anyone. Her poetry is instantly recognisable for her idiosyncratic use of dashes in place of other forms of punctuation. She frequently uses the four-line stanza (or quatrain), and, unusually for a nineteenth-century poet, utilises pararhyme or half-rhyme as often as full rhyme. The epitaph on Emily Dickinson’s gravestone, composed by the poet herself, features just two words: ‘called back’.
If you liked this poem, you might also enjoy these ten short poems about death, and Dickinson’s classic poem about a snake, ‘A narrow Fellow in the Grass’. If you want to own all of Dickinson’s wonderful poetry in a single volume, you can: we recommend the Faber edition of her Complete Poems.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Black/white photograph of Emily Dickinson by William C. North (1846/7), Wikimedia Commons.