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Emily Dickinson's "I heard a Fly buzz – when I died"

Emily Dickinson's poems inform my own worldview as a poet and scholar. They dramatize the human spirit via deep attention to life's details.

Emily Dickinson at 17

Emily Dickinson at 17

Introduction and Text of "I heard a Fly buzz — when I died"

Emily Dickinson’s "I heard a Fly buzz – when I died" consists of four rimed quatrains with the rime scheme ABCB. Most of the rimes are slant rimes: Room-Storm, firm-room, be-fly. Sprinkled liberally with her signature dashes, the poem displays an appropriate breathless quality.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

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 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 –

Reading of "I heard a Fly buzz – when I died"

Commentary

This dramatic offering dramatizes the speaker's act of dying, as well as Dickinson's mystical vision, which corresponds to yogic philosophy.

First Stanza: A Startling Claim

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 –

In the first stanza, the speaker claims, "I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –." The first instance of the breathlessness of the poem occurs immediately following the announcement, "I heard a Fly buzz." Such a mundane statement if left unmodified! But the speaker then adds a real shocker, "when I died."

Nothing could be more startling, nothing could be more Dickinsonian. The room at the time of her passing professed an eerie stillness, reminding the speaker of the quiet that settles briefly between the turbulences of a storm. The mention of the fly then hangs without further discussion until the last line of the third stanza.

Second Stanza: The Eyes of the Mourners

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The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset – when the King
Be witnessed – in the Room –

The speaker then depicts the people who are beginning their mourning of her passing: "The Eyes around – had wrung them dry." The mourners seemed to hold their breath, waiting for that moment when the soul of the loved one makes its final departure from the body: "when the King / Be witnessed – in the Room."

The King refers to God's angel who will appear to escort the soul from the physical to the astral plane. While the escaping soul will be cognizant of the angel, most of the mourners probably will not be, but they will intuit the presence or "that last Onset," which prompts the "Breaths gathering firm."

Third Stanza: Last Will and Testament

I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable – and then it was
There interposed a Fly –

The speaker avers that she has completed her last will and testament, designating which "Keepsakes" should go and to whom; she has "Signed away / What portion of me be / Assignable." Some time has obviously passed between making the will and the moment presently dramatized.

The immediate shift from something she must have accomplished earlier suggests the conflating power of the dying process–like the old saw that one's life passes before one's sight at death. And then the "Fly" makes it appearance: "There interposed a Fly." But she begins a new stanza to portray the importance of the "Fly."

Fourth Stanza: The Fly Buzz

With Blue – uncertain stumbling Buzz –
Between the light – and me –
And then the Windows failed – and then
I could not see to see –

The significant final stanza reveals that the fly is not a literal household fly but is a metaphor for the sound of the soul leaving the body. The line "With Blue – uncertain stumbling Buzz" has taken the place of the term "fly."

In nature, flies appear to be black not blue. However, as the human soul is existing its physical encasement, it experiences the blue that makes up part of the spiritual eye with its outer golden circle which rims the blue inside of which is a pentagonal white star.

The soul must travel through this eye, often referred to as a tunnel by those who have experienced near-death episodes and returned to describe their experience.

The sound of a bee or "fly," which is a buzzing sound, is emanated by the coccygeal chakra in the spine. As the soul journeys up the spine, it begins at the buzz chakra. In very advanced yogis, the "buzz" sound might be described as the "Aum (Om)" sound.

With the "Buzz" sound emanating from the departing soul beginning it journey from the coccygeal center, the physical eyesight begins to fail—"then the Windows failed / and then / I could not see to see." The speaker's unusual claim "I could not see to see" underscores the fact that her light of vision is fading, and the final dash represents its total departure.

Mystical Insight

Although it is highly unlikely that Emily Dickinson had studied any yogic philosophy or techniques, her accurate descriptions of the process of death as well as her descriptions of experiences after death provide evidence that the poet possessed advanced mystical insight.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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