Analysis of the Poem "I Heard a Fly Buzz" by Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson And A Summary Analysis of I Heard A Fly Buzz
I Heard A Fly Buzz is one of many poems Emily Dickinson wrote on the subject of death. It's estimated that out of a total of around 1800 poems she wrote about 300 deal directly or indirectly with the end of life.
Some poems deal with an imagined psychical state of death, like this one, others with the burial and funeral process, or the grave or tomb. A few focus on immortality and life after death.
There's no doubting Emily Dickinson's keen interest in mortality - death fascinated her - she wanted to know how people faced the prospects of finality. She was for most of her adult life curious and questioning.
For example, this is how she described the passing of her own mother:
..'she slipped from our fingers like a flake gathered by the wind, and is now part of the drift called 'the infinite'... We don't know where she is, though so many tell us....'
Though raised as a Christian, Emily Dickinson was not your average churchgoer and held what might be called alternative views to the orthodox.
It's clear from her letters and poems that death and faith were linked in her mind to the idea of a supernatural existence following physical cessation. Perhaps she wrote poems about death to help bridge the faith gap - she used her imagination and unique language to reconcile one with the other.
In the poem a common insect is the focal point, a fly. The fly everyone knows (and generally hates or is irritated by), but the circumstances this innocent fly finds itself in are anything but ordinary.
This fly is buzzing in a room where dead silence prevails, or should. The speaker, presumably the dead person, seemingly aware of impending death, can hear the buzz in the present, which is odd, because dead people as far as we know lose all of their senses.
Emily Dickinson manages to transport the reader into this twilight zone, between consciousness and death, the material and the spiritual.
The question has to be asked: Is the speaker the poet herself? Probably not, as she herself admitted, many of the first person speakers do not represent the creator of the poem. They are invented personas.
Could the voice be that of anyone, unsure of their faith, who has recently passed on, or is in the process of dying? Probably yes.
I Heard A Fly Buzz (591)
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 -
Analysis of I Heard A Fly Buzz Stanza By Stanza
I Heard A Fly Buzz has typical Emily Dickinson structure - four seemingly neat stanzas, quatrains in this case - the lines full of those characteristic dashes which give the poem away immediately.
All of the original manuscripts left behind by the poet are written in pen and pencil and are fascinating to scan. It should be noted that some of the poems do not conform to the neat stanza pattern; they're written sometimes on scraps of paper and simply fill the space available.
Other poems have different versions, with vocabulary changes and altered lines which goes to show that as an artist Emily Dickinson was shall we say reluctant to follow convention. Her phrasing, her language, her syntax - only she could have produced such work.
Being a reclusive person she didn't seek the limelight so only around a dozen or so of her poems were published during her lifetime. Most were circulated privately for family and friends.
After her death her sister Lavinia found hundreds of poems in Emily's room (the fascicles) and decided that they should be published. Eventually they were, in 1890, thanks to efforts from friends and family.
That famous opening line, with a typical dash, like a quick intake of breath, is both slightly comical and alarming. Okay, there's a fly buzzing about; okay the speaker's dead. Wait a second. Not okay. The speaker is no more, has deceased, has shuffled off the mortal coil.
Dickinson's quirky imagination and ready wit in real life makes for intriguing poetry, the different expressions of her inner life. Her ability to invent first person speakers that are not Emily Dickinson herself is a wonder.
Here the speaker is experiencing reality (the fly) even in death. Most absurd, really fascinating. Supernatural. Did the poet ever witness a dying person for real, to gain insights? With such a creative brain she probably didn't need to.
It's so still in the room, like the calm before the storm, almost a false calm that is only present because of the coming storm. So the speaker is apparently alive to the atmosphere, the present atmosphere in the room. Something is brewing, some disturbance is forecast?
The eyes around, the windows of the soul, ...are these the eyes of other people in the room who were tearful ...the eyes going around the room perhaps, or maybe the eyeballs are going round and round as the speaker senses death approaching. Check out another of her poems (Fr648):
I've seen a Dying Eye
Run round and round a
In search of Something -
as it seemed -
Then Cloudier become -
And then - obscure with Fog -
And then - be soldered
Without disclosing what
'T were blessed to have
This little poem is in its original form, directly taken from a handwritten version and shows Dickinson's dashes and run on lines clearly.
It also reflects Dickinson's appetite for observing or imagining the point of death. The eyes are searching for something, so we can assume that the eyes going around in the fly poem are doing something similar.
These are the final seconds of consciousness, when the soul is preparing to take flight as the body shuts down, so to speak.
The final breaths are taken as the speaker awaits the arrival of the King, which has to be the Christian Jesus, come to guide the soul to its resting place, in heaven? This climactic moment is witnessed (are there others in the room too?) ..or is it the speaker's in extremis experience?
Stanza By Stanza Analysis of I Heard A Fly Buzz
The speaker has keepsakes - in Emily Dickinson's time these were all important personal items such as a Bible or a ring or a photograph or other family treasures. Are these real or metaphorical?
In the still semi-conscious mind of the speaker precious items of emotional worth have been 'signed away' that is, the items that might have 'held' the soul back in the material world have been given to others for safekeeping.
This is fascinating. Here is the speaker hovering between the spiritual and material, between life and death, putting the house in order it might be said, preparing for the 'last Onset' when what should intervene but a humble fly, surely a signifier of the natural world.
It's logical to associate flies with the dead for these are the insects to first detect flesh that is no longer with life force...for they are instinctively drawn to lay eggs. How is it the speaker is so taken by the buzz?
We know that Emily Dickinson was inspired by nature, by creatures and plants. She wrote poems about them and mentioned them in her many letters.
Something so insignificant as a fly becomes the focal point of a poem about death and the mysterious process of dying, when the self is still able to articulate perception, despite the cessation of the senses.
The fly is blue, a bluebottle, and it's buzzing in the window. The speaker is aware of it as the light streams into the room. So the speaker's eyes are still able to discern the light but not for much longer because the 'Windows failed' that is, seeing didn't work any longer.
The speaker is leaving the material plane and is now blind - still wanting to see but unable to because the dying process means the brain stops working and therefore the sense of self is lost.
Syntax And Literary/Poetic Devices in I Heard A Fly Buzz
Emily Dickinson's poem has unusual syntax (the way clauses and grammar combine and work together) due mainly to the use of dashes and a lack of punctuation. The reader has to use discretion when reading through, taking care to pause between stanzas for example, or not.
These dashes represent commas, colons, sometimes semi-colons and even full (end) stops. They're unconventional to say the least, which was very much in the Emily Dickinson mode.
So the poem is full of short, clear phrases and shorter one word or two utterances - sectioned off by the dash, off-putting at first but once grasped and familiar not too difficult a hurdle for a smooth read through.
When a line runs on into the next with no punctuation, so the momentum builds a little and the meaning is carried on. This occurs in all stanzas. Look out for the lines without end dashes.
There are repeats....in the Room....And then....Stillness...Between....
Rhyme And Meter (Metre in British English)
This poem has both full and slant rhyme (sometimes called pararhyme) with a rhyme scheme:
The full rhyme me/see in the last stanza, the slant rhymes being:
This poem has a basic iambic beat but does have variation in certain lines. Let's look at the first stanza:
I heard / a Fly / buzz - when / I died -
The still / ness in / the Room
Was like / the Still / ness in / the Air -
Between / the Heaves / of Storm -
So this is alternating iambic tetrameter (first and third lines each with four feet and eight syllables) and iambic trimeter (second and fourth lines each with the three feet and six syllables). This gives a fairly consistent beat, broken when the dashes intervene within the line.
Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005
The Poetry Handbook, John Lennard, OUP, 2005
© 2020 Andrew Spacey