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On 465 ("I Heard A Fly Buzz–when I Died") Essay, Research Paper

Gerhard Friedrich

This poem seems to present two major problems to the interpreter.

First, what is the significance of the buzzing fly in relation to the dying person, and

second, what is the meaning of the double use of "see" in the last line? An

analysis of the context helps to clear up these apparent obscurities, and a close parallel

found in another Dickinson poem reinforces such interpretation.

In an atmosphere of outward quiet and inner calm, the dying person collectedly proceeds

to bequeath his or her worldly possessions, and while engaged in this activity of

"willing," finds his attention withdrawn by a fly’s buzzing. The fly is

introduced in intimate connection with "my keepsakes" and "what portion of

me be assignable"; it follows—and is the culmination of—the dying person’s

preoccupation with cherished material things no longer of use to the departing owner. In

the face of death, and even more of a possible spiritual life beyond death, one’s concern

with a few earthly belongings is but a triviality, and indeed a distraction from a

momentous issue. The obtrusiveness of the inferior, physical aspects of existence, and the

busybody activity associated with them, is poignantly illustrated by the intervening

insect (cf. the line "Buzz the dull flies on the chamber window," in the poem

beginning "How many times these low feet staggered"). Even so small a

demonstrative, demonstrable creature is sufficient to separate the dying person from

"the light," i.e. to blur the vision, to short-circuit mental concentration, so

that spiritual awareness is lost. The last line of the poem may then be paraphrased to

read: "Waylaid by irrelevant, tangible, finite objects of little importance, I was no

longer capable of that deeper perception which would clearly reveal to me the infinite

spiritual reality." As Emily Dickinson herself expressed it, in another Second Series

poem beginning "Their height in heaven comforts not":

I’m finite, I can’t see.

. . . .

This timid life of evidence

Keeps pleading, "1 don’t know."

[#696—Poems, 1891, p. 197]

The dying person does in fact not merely suffer an unwelcome external interruption of

an otherwise resolute expectancy, but falls from a higher consciousness, from liberating

insight, from faith, into an intensely skeptical mood. The fly’s buzz is characterized as

"blue, uncertain, stumbling," and emphasis on the finite physical reality goes

hand in hand with a frustrating lack of absolute assurance. The only portion of a man not

properly "assignable" may be that which dies and decomposes! To the dying

person, the buzzing fly would thus become a timely, untimely reminder of man’s final,

cadaverous condition and putrefaction.

The sudden fall of the dying person into the captivity of an earth-heavy skepticism

demonstrates of course the inadequacy of the earlier pseudo-stoicism. What seemed then

like composure, was after all only a pause "between the heaves of storm"; the

"firmness" of the second stanza proved to be less than veritable peace of mind

and soul; and so we have a profoundly tragic human situation, namely the perennial

conflict between two concepts of reality, most carefully delineated.

The poem should be compared with its illuminating counterpart of the Second Series,

"Their height in heaven comforts not," and may be contrasted with "Death is

a dialogue between," "I heard as if I had no ear," and the well-known

"I never saw a moor."


I read Mr. Gerhard Friedrich’s explication . . . of Emily Dickinson’s poem with great

interest, but I find myself preferring a different explication.

Mr. Friedrich says of the fly: "Even so small a demonstrative, demonstrable

creature is sufficient to separate the dying person from ‘the light,’ i.e. to blur the

vision, to short-circuit mental concentration, so that spiritual awareness is lost. The

last line of the poem may then be paraphrased to read: ‘Waylaid by irrelevant, tangible,

finite objects of little importance, I was no longer capable of that deeper perception

which would clearly reveal to me the infinite spiritual reality.’"

Mr. Friedrich’s argument is coherent and respectable, but I feel it tends to make Emily

more purely mystical than I sense her to be. I understand that fly to be the last kiss of

the world, the last buzz from life. Certainly Emily’s tremendous attachment to the

physical world, and her especial delight both in minute creatures for their own sake, and

in minute actions for the sake of the dramatic implications that can be loaded into them,

hardly needs to be documented. Any number of poems illustrate her delight in the special

significance of tiny living things. "Elysium is as Far" will do as a single

example of her delight in packing a total-life significance into the slightest actions:

What fortitude the Soul contains,

That it can so endure

The accent of a coming Foot—

The opening of a Door—

[#1760—Poems, 1890, p. 46]

I find myself better persuaded, therefore, to think of the fly not as a distraction

taking Emily’s thoughts from glory and blocking the divine light (When did Emily ever

think of living things as a distraction?), but as a last dear sound from the world as the

light of consciousness sank from her, i.e. "the windows failed." And so I take

the last line to mean simply: "And then there was no more of me, and nothing to see



In writing her best poems [Emily Dickinson] was never at the mercy of her emotions or

of the official rhetoric. She mastered her themes by controlling her language. She could

achieve a novel significance, for example, by starting with a death scene that implies the

orthodox questions and then turning the meaning against itself by the strategy of surprise

answers. . . . /231/ ["I heard a Fly buzz—when I died"] operates in terms

of all the standard religious assumptions of her New England, but with a difference. They

are explicitly gathered up in one phrase for the moment of death, with distinct Biblical

overtones, ‘that last Onset—when the King / Be witnessed—in the Room.’ But how

is he witnessed?

As the poet dramatizes herself in a deathbed scene, with family and friends gathered

round, her heightened senses report the crisis in flat domestic terms that bring to the

reader’s mind each of the traditional questions only to deny them without even asking

them. Her last words were squandered in distributing her ‘Keepsakes,’ trivial tokens of

this life rather than messages from the other. The only sound of heavenly music, or of

wings taking flight, was the ‘Blue—uncertain stumbling Buzz’ of a fly that filled her

dying ear. Instead of a final vision of the hereafter, this world simply faded from her

eyes: the light in the windows failed and then she ‘could not see to see.’ The King

witnessed in his power is physical death, not God. To take this poem literally as an

attempted inside view of the gradual extinction of consciousness and the beginning of the

soul’s flight into eternity would be to distort its meaning, for this is not an

imaginative projection of her own death. In structure, in language, in imagery it is

simply an ironic reversal of the conventional attitudes of her time and place toward the

significance of the moment of death. Yet mystery is evoked by a single word, that

extraordinarily interposed color ‘Blue.’

To misread such a poem would be to misunderstand the whole cast of Dickinson’s mind.

Few poets saw more clearly the boundary between what can and what cannot be comprehended,

and so held the mind within its proper limitations. . . . /232/


Emily Dickinson’s "I Heard A Fly Buzz When I Died" should be read, I think,

with a particular setting in mind—a nineteenth-century deathbed scene. Before the age

of powerful anodynes death was met in full consciousness, and the way of meeting it tended

to be stereotype. It was affected with a public interest and concern, and was witnessed by

family and friends. They crowded the death chamber to wait expectantly a burst of dying

energy to bring on the grand act of passing. Commonly it began with last-minute bequests,

the wayward were called to repentance, the backslider to reform, gospel hymns were sung,

and finally as climax the dying one gave witness in words to the Redeemer’s presence in

the room, how He hovered, transplendent in the upper air, with open arms outstretched to

receive the departing soul. This was death’s great moment. Variants there were, of course,

in case of repentant and unrepentant sinners. Here in this poem the central figure of the

drama is expected to make a glorious exit. The build-up is just right for it, but at the

moment of climax "There interposed a fly." And what kind of a fly? A fly

"with blue, uncertain stumbling buzz"—a blowfly.

How right is Mr. Gerhard Friedrich in his explication . . . to associate the fly with

putrefaction and decay. And how wrong, I think, is Mr. John Ciardi . . . in calling the

fly "the last kiss of the world," and speaking of it as one of the small

creatures Emily Dickinson so delighted in. She could not possibly have entertained any

such view of a blowfly. She was a practical housewife, and every housewife abhors a

blowfly. It pollutes everything it touches. Its eggs are maggots. It is as carrion as a


What we know of Emily Dickinson gives us assurance that just as she would abhor the

blowfly she would abhor the deathbed scene. How devastatingly she disposes of the

projected one in the poem. "They talk of hallowed things and embarrass my dog"

she writes in 1862 in a letter to Mr. Higginson (Letters, 1958, II, 415).Sharon Cameron

We must imagine the speaker looking back on an experience in which her expectations of

death were foiled by its reality. The poem begins with the speaker’s perception of the

fly, not yet a central awareness both because of the way in which the fly manifests itself

(as sound) and because of the degree to which it manifests itself (as a triviality). As a

consequence of the speaker’s belief in the magnitude of the event and the propriety with

which it should be enacted, the fly seems merely indecorous, as yet a marginal

disturbance, attracting her attention the way in which something we have not yet invested

with meaning does. In a poem very much concerned with the question of vision, it is

perhaps strange that the dominant concern in stanza one should be auditory. But upon

reflection it makes sense, for the speaker is hearing a droning in the background before

the source of the noise comes into view. The poem describes the way in which things come

into view, slowly.

What is striking in the second stanza is the speaker’s lack of involvement in the

little drama that is being played out. She is acutely conscious that there will be a

struggle with death, but she imagines it is the people around her who will undergo it. Her

detachment and tranquility seem appropriate if we imagine them to come in the aftermath of

pain, a subject that is absent in the poem and whose absence helps to place the experience

at the moment before death. At such a moment, the speaker’s concern is focused on others,

for being the center of attention with all eyes upon her, she is at leisure to return the

stare. Her concern with her audience continues in the third stanza and prompts the tone of

officiousness there. Wanting to set things straight, the speaker wishes to add the

finishing touches to her life, to conclude it the way one would a business deal. The

desire to structure and control experience is not, however, carried out in total

blindness, for she is clearly cognizant of those "Keep-sakes—" not hers to

give. Even at this point her conception of dying may be a preconception but it is not one

founded on total ignorance.

The speaker has been imagining herself as a queen about to leave her people, conscious

of the majesty of the occasion, presiding over it. She expects to witness death as

majestic, too, or so one infers from the way in which she speaks of him in stanza two. The

staginess of the conception, however, has little to do with what Charles Anderson calls

"an ironic reversal of the conventional attitudes of [Dickinson's] time and place

toward the significance of the moment of death." If it did, the poem would arbitrate

between the social meanings and personal ones. But the conflict between preconception and

perception takes place inside. Or rather preconception gives way only to darkness. For at

the conclusion of the third stanza the fly "interpose[s]," coming between the

speaker and the onlookers, between her predictive fantasy of the event and its reality,

between life and death. The fact that the fly obscures the former allows the speaker to

see the latter. Perspective suddenly shifts to the right thing: from the ritual of dying

to the fact of death. It is, of course, the fly who obliterates the speaker’s false

notions of death, for it is with his coming that she realizes that she is the witness and

he the king, that the ceremony is a "stumbling" one. It is from a perspective

schooled by the fly that she writes.

As several previous discussions of the poem have acknowledged, the final stanza begins

with a complicated synesthesia: "With Blue—uncertain stumbling Buzz—."

The adjective "stumbling" (used customarily to describe only an action) here

also describes a sound, and the adverb "uncertain" the quality of that sound.

The fusion would not be so interesting if its effect were not to evoke that moment in

perception when it is about to fail. As in a high fever, noises are amplified, the light

in the room takes on strange hues, one effect seems indistinguishable from another.

Although there is a more naturalistic explanation for the word "stumbling" (to

describe the way in which flies go in and out of our hearing), the poem is so predicated

on the phenomenon of displacement and projection (of the speaker’s feelings onto the

onlookers, of the final blindness onto the "Windows," of the fact of perception

onto the experience of death) that the image here suggests another dramatic

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