I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died by Emily Dickinson: Summary and Critical Analysis

This is another poem on death, less dramatic, but more gruesome than the poem "Because I could not stop for him." The present poem is again an attempt at objectifying death just before it occurs. The poem records the objectified experience of the speaker during the brief period between the last moments of life and cessation of life. The sense of transition from life's last phase to death conveyed by evoking the image of a fly. The fly, ugly and insignificant as it is in life, becomes very significant to the dying person, and therefore becomes central to the poem.

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

The fly-image dominates the poem. It is mostly the twirling and the buzz of the fly that the speaker is obsessed with. The pace of transition from life to cessation of life is measured by the speaker's gradual loss of outward things represented by the fly. So long as the dying man is conscious of the vibrant gyrations and the buzzing noise of the fly, she knows that she is alive. But gradually when the fly is not heard or seen, life ebbs out of the speaker. The fly therefore becomes vitally important for the poem. Its distracting, noise and vibrant movements are a reassurance to the speaker that she is alive.

When the poem I Heard a Fly Buzz begins the speaker is already dead and describing her experience of dying. She describes a stillness, and silence in the room, as in the center of a storm (hurricane). The poem’s speaker suggests that there is a moment of absolute calm between the storms of life and death.

This opening of the poem leads the reader to wonder why the fly is significant enough to be the speakers’ enduring memory of the experience of death. In the second quatrain, the metonymy “eye” represents the mourners themselves. “Eyes’ means, quite literally, the eyes of the people who have been crying and drying their eyes for the loved one who is dying. The people at the deathbed are “gathering firm” in the understanding that the loved one will die. Their breathing has stopped shaking and trembling because they are calmly waiting, certain that she will live no longer.

In the third stanza, the speaker describes how she had completed her personal business to prepare herself to die. She made a last will and testament, giving “keepsakes,” or token processions away to relatives and friends. When she was ready and waiting, “There interposed a Fly”. This could mean that the speaker was actually expecting some other being to come, but something else ‘interposed’.

In the last stanza, the speaker describes her last sensations before she died. The ‘blue’ of line 13 may be suggestive of her longing for the eternal or immortal. But with a dash suddenly giving a turn to the idea, the stumbling, buzzing fly comes into the scene. It comes between her and the light, symbolically meaning that it came between her and the light of reason and consciousness. The color blue is perhaps used ironically with the fly that is usually symbolic of mortality, death and decay. The windows can have two possible meanings in the poem. Perhaps the speaker is transporting the experience of the light falling to the windows. Or else, “windows” is a metaphor for the eyes, such as in the sense that person's description of blindness. It might be a spiritual blindness, indicating that there is no great spiritual vision after death but mere nothingness.

This poem deals with Dickinson’s recurrent preoccupations with death. She writes this poem from a viewpoint after she has died. The persona describes the experience of dying. She is describing the final experiences and sensations before the exact moment of death. There is disagreement over the symbolic significance of the fly and its relationship to the death of the persona. Although many people claim to return from near death experiences with stories of life after death, no one has ever been able to properly describe the moment of death itself. Dickinson offers her own sight into what is birth a common and indescribable mystery of human experience; she explores the mystery and curiosity of death imaginatively. One of the most puzzling questions about this somewhat enigmatic poem is; 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. It also shows that the speaker is still attached to the physical world. Another reason might be that because the fly is a creature that eats dead bodies, it is an ironic and cruel reminder of the fate of the dead-person’s body after he or she is gone. When the sound of the Fly fades, the speaker also fades, until the poem’s final moment of blindness and silence. The poem also indirectly rejects the traditional Christian belief about the spirituality of life and death; instead of some angels or Christ himself comes to take the soul of the person, a mere fly comes, and then there is total darkness and oblivion.

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Sharma, K.N. "I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died by Emily Dickinson: Summary and Critical Analysis." BachelorandMaster, 9 Nov. 2013, bachelorandmaster.com/britishandamericanpoetry/i-heard-a-fly-buzz.html.