Dickinson is known for her short poems, filled with shocking imagery and dark ideas. She wrote many poems about Death, including ‘Because I could not stop for Death‘ and ‘I Felt a Funeral, in my Brain‘. These two other poems are similar to this poem, ‘I heard a Fly buzz – when I died’, in that the speaker uses shocking and dark imagery, contrasting what the readers expect to hear about death with what she actually writes about it.
In all three poems, Dickinson implies that she has already experienced death, and has the authority to speak as a voice from beyond. In all of the poems, death is described as something dark, mysterious, and disturbing.
I heard a Fly buzz - when I died Emily DickinsonI heard a Fly buzz - when I died -The Stillness in the RoomWas like the Stillness in the Air -Between the Heaves of Storm -The Eyes around - had wrung them dry -And Breaths were gathering firmFor that last Onset - when the KingBe witnessed - in the Room -I willed my Keepsakes - Signed awayWhat portion of me beAssignable - and then it wasThere interposed a Fly -With Blue - uncertain - stumbling Buzz -Between the light - and me -And then the Windows failed - and thenI could not see to see -
Explore I heard a Fly buzz - when I died
Rather than mourning this fact, the speaker focuses on a single fly that buzzes around her as she’s nearing the end. This is an interesting juxtaposition, one that highlights the actions of her family members. The poet also emphasizes the stillness of the room as everyone around her waits for her death. Then, when the fly comes in, she describes it as interrupting the intended flow of the day.
Dickinson engages primarily with the theme of death in ‘I heard a Fly buzz-when I died.’ She makes no attempt to comfort her readers at the idea of death throughout the piece. Rather she describes it as something to be feared. Her focus on specifics about her surroundings allows the readers to enter into her deathbed with her.
The readers can connect with this feeling of death, and perhaps the universal fear of death connects readers to this particular poem. In this poem, she specifically focuses on a fly. It seems like a strange thing to focus on at the moment of death, but throughout the poem, the speaker reveals the significance of the fly, as he flies about aimlessly, disturbing her peace and ultimately ruining her moment of death.
Structure and Form
‘I heard a Fly buzz-when I died’ by Emily Dickinson is a four-stanza poem that is separated into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains follow a very loose rhyme scheme of ABCB, changing end sounds between the stanzas. The majority of the rhymes in the four stanzas are half-rhymes, meaning that only part of the words rhyme. For example, “Room” and “Storm” in the first stanza. There is also an example exact rhyme with “Room” at the ends of line four of the first stanza and line four of the second stanza.
Dickinson makes use of several literary devices in ‘I heard a Fly buzz-when I died.’ These include but are not limited to enjambment, repetition, and alliteration. The latter is one type of repetition, one that’s focused on the use of consonant sounds at the beginning of words. For example, “Stillness” and “Storm” in lines three and four of the first stanza as well as “Blue” and “Between” in lines one and two of stanza four.
Enjambment is another common technique, one that’s concerned with the transitions between lines. If the poet cuts off a line before the conclusion of a sentence or phrase before its natural conclusion. For example, between lines two and three of the first stanza as well as lines two and three of the third stanza.
Analysis of 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 opening of ‘I heard a Fly buzz – when I died’ is rather startling, and Dickinson intends for it to shock her readers. The phrase “I heard a fly buzz” initially gives the readers the idea that this is going to a rather boring poem, about nothing in particular.
But then, after a short pause marked by the dash, the speaker informs the audience that she heard the fly buzz at the moment of her death, and suddenly the readers become aware that the rest of this poem will be spoken by a voice from the other side. She draws a sharp contrast between the sound of the buzzing fly, and the stillness of the room she is in when she dies.
In the last part of this stanza, the speaker emphasizes the way the room felt. The stillness of it was thick, like the stillness that can be felt in that calm settle between storms.
The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset – when the King
Be witnessed – in the Room –
In the second stanza of ‘I heard a Fly Buzz – when I died’, the speaker shifts from her focus on the fly as contrasted with the stillness of the room, and she begins to describe the people she sees sitting around her. She describes their eyes as “dry”, not because no one cried over her death, but because everyone had already cried all the tears they had to cry.
This is why the speaker describes their eyes as “wrung”. The speaker continues to describe the stillness of the room when she says that she could hear the breath of the people around her who are waiting for the moment of death, or the “last onset”. It is not clear whether “The King” in this stanza refers to God or to the Angel of Death, but to whomever she refers, she expects that he will show up in the room at the moment of her death.
I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away
What portions of me be
Assignable – and then it was
There interposed a Fly –
With the third stanza of ‘I heard a Fly buzz – when I died’, the speaker suggests that everything was perfect, and she was ready for death, before the intruding fly interposed. She claims that she had all of her “keepsakes” designated to certain people. Her will was in order. The room was peaceful, and the air was still. But then the fly buzzed, and interrupted her peaceful moment of death.
With Blue – uncertain stumbling Buzz –
Between the light – and me –
And then the Windows failed – and then
I could not see to see –
With this stanza, everything suddenly becomes uncertain, and the readers can feel the anxiety of the speaker as she describes the fly in his uncertainty. He buzzes here and there, not sure where to land. This uncertain buzzing is disturbing to the speaker, in her moment of death. In many stories of near-death experiences, people describe the light toward which they walk.
Here, the speaker suggests that there is such a light, but the fly buzzes between herself and the light. In her moment of death, which was supposed to be peaceful as she followed the glowing light from this life to the next, something disrupted her peaceful moment of death.
Suddenly, she cannot see the windows anymore, and a moment later, she cannot see anything anymore. The speaker leaves the audience with this image of the moment of death: darkness, and a disturbing fly. It seems the speaker believes that the moment of death should have been filled with a bright, warm light. She should have been surrounded by people who loved her in the peacefulness of her room.
But, alas, the fly ruined it all, and the speaker leaves her audience to understand that in her death, she heard the buzzing of a fly, experienced darkness, and had a feeling of uncertainty. Everyone in the room with the dead speaker seemed sad, but peaceful. The dead woman alone felt a sense of uncertainty, and this is revealed by the buzzing of the uncertain fly who came and disrupted her peace.
Readers who enjoyed ‘I heard a Fly buzz-when I died’ should also consider reading ‘A Coffin is a Small Domain,’ ‘The Letter,’ and ‘Because I could not stop for Death.’ The latter is certainly Dickinson’s best-known poem. In it, she personifies death and describes her journey into the afterlife. The piece is well-loved for its thoughtfulness and originality. In ‘A Coffin is a Small Domain,’ the poet also addresses death. She considers mortality, eternity, and a tiny grave. ‘The Letter’ is a touching love poem in which the poet describes the letter as writing itself.
Emily Dickinson Background
During Emily Dickinson‘s early years, she experienced the death of many people close to her, including that of her cousin. It is easy to see why she felt familiar with death.
In times of sorrow, she would likely have heard sermons about salvation, paradise, and mansions waiting in eternity. During Dickinson’s lifetime, many of her close family members and friends joined the church as the 1830s saw what many referred to as “revivals” or “awakenings” in which many people proclaimed faith in Jesus Christ and eternal life. ‘I heard a Fly buzz – when I died’ makes it very clear that the author, at some point in her life, viewed death as something sweet and gentle. This poem, like her many other poems about death, reveals that something is different for her.
She doesn’t believe that she herself will experience seeing the warm light and being welcomed into an after-life in paradise. In some of her other correspondence, she admitted that although everyone around her seemed to be converting to Christianity, she could not. Perhaps this is why she felt that her experience of death would not be calm and peaceful, as it would be for her friends and family. She seemed to believe that her own death would be disturbed. In ‘I heard a Fly buzz – when I died’, the uncertain little fly could symbolize Dickinson’s own uncertainty in death as contrasted with the security the people around her seem to feel.