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Analysis of Poem 'The Fly' by William Blake

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

William Blake by Thomas Phillips, 1807

William Blake by Thomas Phillips, 1807

William Blake and a Summary of 'The Fly'

'The Fly' is a short poem from William Blake's book Songs of Innocence and Experience, written for adults and children, exploring the dual nature of the human soul.

Lyrical, with rhyme, the poem focuses on a fly observed by a first-person speaker. As the lines progress, the relationship between fly and human (speaker) becomes more complex, despite the poem's simple structure.

In a mere five lean stanzas (quatrains), Blake offers the reader both philosophical and ironical perspective, as well as a moral dilemma to sort out. Who is he to stop the fly 'playing'? Surely he and the fly are similar, and can swap identities, because they're both equally vulnerable in a shared world?

A fundamental question arises out of the ambiguous nature of the first stanza for example: Is the fly killed by the thoughtless hand of the observer or not?

  • In a kind of Schrodinger's cat scenario (where cat is fly, both alive and dead, dead but alive, only alive because of the human thought, but possibly dead because of the human act) the speaker's initial objective stance—in the first three stanzas—is turned on its head in the last two: almost as if the fly has the last word on the topic of existence.

An intriguing poem, 'The Fly' has caused many a commentator to puzzle over the speaker's role as either:

  1. perpetrator of a foul yet everyday act, killing a fly, regretting it and trying to work out the guilt philosophically; or
  2. innocent yet careless observer who swishes fly away and then ruminates on their relationship, their existence dependent on breath, the inevitability of a common fate.

The conclusion must be that the speaker's attempt to understand his relationship with the fly relies on thought, firstly as a reasoning power and secondly as the medium for life.

It is thought that allows the speaker to logically conclude that both he and fly are subject to a higher power, fate, which can strike down either one at any time. And thinking must mean life is present, keeping death at bay so to speak.

William Blake, artist and visionary, often expresses a childlike wonder in many of his poems. Rhyme and metre combine with musical language to produce 'songs' that enhance this special quality.

But what sets him apart is his ability to apply a philosophical, sometimes spiritual, element that takes the poetry to another level. 'The Fly' is a good example. Here is an insect considered a pest by many, a low creature, given a personified status, creating intimate, happy circumstances alive or dead.

Other poets have related poems involving insects. They make fascinating reading alongside Blake's—John Donne's 'The Flea' focuses on intimacy and lust; William Oldys wrote 'On a Fly Drinking from his Cup'. In Chapman's Homer's 'Iliad' (17. 485-492) the fly is seen as a hero.

Songs of Innocence and Experience, a book that explores poverty, injustice and abuse, has a complicated publishing history. It first came out in separate form in 1789, then a complete version was published five years later in 1794. Other versions appeared in the early 1800s.

'The Fly' by William Blake

Little fly,
Thy summer’s play
My thoughtless hand
Has brushed away.

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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.

Stanza-by-Stanza Analysis of 'The Fly'

'The Fly' is a short poem of five quatrains (four lines in each stanza), with a rhyme scheme:

abcb (first four stanzas)

aaba (last stanza)

The tone is thoughtful and philosophical, the speaker accepting the vulnerability of both, suggesting that thought is the key to life and happiness can be achieved, alive or dead.

First Stanza

It's all to easy for a human to swat a fly, to lift a hand and change the life of an innocent insect that may or may not be an annoyance. In this opening stanza the reader doesn't know if the fly is killed or not. Ambiguity remains.

Yet the important thing to know is that a human has power over a fly and here the act takes precedence. The thoughtless hand—an instinctive swipe brushes away the playful fly.

It's interesting to note that the act is thoughtless. It's an unthinking action that potentially ends the fly's life.

Note the archaic Thy which means your.

Second Stanza

The speaker poses two questions involving personification, directly addressing the fly in both. Man as fly, fly as man. Naturally the fly cannot answer—only the human with a brain and thoughts can reply.

There's a hint of insecurity (perhaps guilt) related to these questions. Why compare themselves to a fly and vice versa? Sensitivity arises too. Who cares about a little fly?

Again, the archaic thee (you) and art not thou (aren't you) appear.

Third Stanza

The speaker now affirms the previous questions by saying that yes, just like the fly, he lives a playful life until the fates dictate. They share the same world, the same life, the same death.

The reader has to decide if the speaker is addressing himself and a dead fly, or himself and a fly still buzzing around, alive. The poem doesn't make this clear, but the human act is the vital factor—humans have power over flies, and the blind hand power over both.

Fourth Stanza

These philosophical lines suggest to the reader that thought alone, the product of human brain power, accounts for life. Without it we're dead. It's a paraphrase of Rene Descartes first principle 'I think, therefore I am' (1637, Discourse on the Method).

Thinking is what makes a human a human. A fly, for all its complex physical structure, cannot think like a human. Only a human can create the idea of swapping identities and being happy alive or dead.

Fifth Stanza

The last stanza follows on . . . If . . . Then . . . with the outcome being happiness, as fly or man, alive or dead.

What Is the Metre of 'The Fly'?

'The Fly' metrically is an iambic dimeter poem, with two feet per line. There are variations on the iambic when the syllables are only three—the trochee appears, inverted iambs, with the final syllable stressed.

Let's take a closer look at the first stanza:

Little / fly,

Thy sum / mer's play

My thought / less hand

Has brushed / away.

The first line has a trochee foot (first syllable stressed, second not) and ends with a stressed beat.

The second, third and fourth lines are iambic dimeter (unstressed first syllable, second stressed).

Original page from William Blake's 'Songs of Innocence and Experience', 1794.

Original page from William Blake's 'Songs of Innocence and Experience', 1794.

Sources

© 2022 Andrew Spacey

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