By Dr Oliver Tearle
‘The Fly’ is not one of William Blake’s most celebrated poems, but it provides an opportunity for us to pinpoint some of the characteristic features of his work. Here is ‘The Fly’, before we proceed to an analysis of this curious poem.
Thy summer’s play
My thoughtless hand
Has brushed away.
Am not I
A fly like thee?
Or art not thou
A man like me?
For I dance
And drink and sing,
Till some blind hand
Shall brush my wing.
If thought is life
And strength and breath,
And the want
Of thought is death,
Then am I
A happy fly,
If I live,
Or if I die.
In summary, ‘The Fly’ runs as follows: Blake’s speaker addresses the fly which his hand has just brushed away, putting an end to the fly’s ‘summer’s play’ by presumably killing it. The speaker wonders whether he and the fly are, in fact, the same. Like the fly, the speaker dances and drinks and sings (all things which a fly does: its ‘song’ is its buzzing) until some ‘blind hand’ will kill him, snuffing out his existence. The speaker of ‘The Fly’ ends by reasoning that if life means thought, or consciousness, and the absence of thought or consciousness is death, then the speaker is, like the fly, happy whether he lives or dies.
How should we interpret this poem, and particularly the final two stanzas? One analysis we might venture concerns the idea of whether we should fear death or not. The speaker’s ‘thoughtless’ killing of the fly (‘thoughtless’ will come to be a somewhat ironic word by the end of the poem) leads him to muse upon the meaning of life and death to himself. When we are dead, we do not know we are dead: consciousness ends when our life ends. So we will be ‘happy’ to be dead because we won’t know otherwise. If this strikes a somewhat atheistic note, which seems at odds with Blake’s own religious beliefs, then we should remember the parallel with the fly, and Blake’s own provisional word ‘If’. If we will not have ‘thought’ when we die, at least not of the same kind that we have when living, we have nothing to fear from death.
Alternatively, we might think of ‘thought’ in Blake’s poem as referring to the action of the speaker (swatting the fly) and the higher power (such as God) which determines the speaker’s own fate. In this analysis, the ‘want of thought’ (i.e. lack of thought) is not the poor fly’s (or the poor speaker’s even) but the thoughtless deity which determines whether someone will live or die. So ‘the want of thought / Is death’ in that as soon as a god performs a thoughtless action upon us, it means death for us. Either interpretation is tenable. How do you read ‘The Fly’?
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.
For me what stand out most in the poem is the idea that the bringer of death, the higher being, does it with little consideration of the fly (or man’s) wants. It that way it’s a little sad, although he does point out that in life or death, there is happiness.
wonderful discussion. I am a complete novice to poetry. Complete. Maybe 12 years ago I was on a solo golf adventure in NW Ireland. I stopped at Yeat’s tomb in Sligo. It moved me. It did. Not much does. So, I am happy to find a site whereby I may be able to understand poetry..
I see it like our not knowing or distinguishing the line between life or death, as the fly buzzes ever so near to its own demise. If death is the absence of life, then it is not a thing and therefore intangible, except to express loss; perhaps death is no more than the process of life fading away…
Remember Blake also painted ‘the ghost of a flea’ which is half-human. His pantheistic view is strong in this poem as in many of his others.
Yes, this one of Blake’s puzzles many. I took a crack at considering it this summer.
My first break from many readings is that I don’t see any description in the opening of the brush killing the fly. Blake may had a different species of insect that he calls a fly than I do, but you can’t kill the larger flies of my region with a thoughless brush, and a swat (a word Blake doesn’t use) with a bare hand requires intent and speed, not an offhand swipe.
Going from their the opening, it’s a story not of arbitrary death but of interruption. That led me to wonder if Blake was familiar with Socrates concept of the gadfly (later loved by Gandhi and M. L. King) meant to interrupt thoughtlessness. If I’m right with that reading, then the puzzling later stanzas start to fall in line: the fly causes the poem’s speaker to exit the thoughtless busyness of his dance, drink and sing. Thought is the better or more thorough use of the strength of breath, to be fully human is to use that capacity.
I interpret “thought” in the poem to resemble Rene Descarte’s “Cogito, ergo sum.” Blake is looking at the fly and trying to determine if the fly is a “thinking thing” like him.