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

Updated on April 20, 2018
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Emily Dickinson

Source

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

The poem 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.")

0465. 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—

Dickinson's "I heard a Fly buzz — when I died —"

Emily Dickinson at 17

Source

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

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 of Om

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 "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 it 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.

Emily Dickinson's Titles

Emily Dickinson did not provide titles to her 1,775 poems; therefore, each poem's first line becomes the title. According to the MLA Style Manuel:

"When the first line of a poem serves as the title of the poem, reproduce the line exactly as it appears in the text."

APA does not address this issue.

Life Sketch of Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson remains one of the most fascinating and widely researched poets in America. Much speculation abounds regarding some of the most known facts about her. For example, after the age of seventeen, she remained fairly cloistered in her father's home, rarely moving from the house beyond the front gate. Yet she produced some of the wisest, deepest poetry ever created anywhere at any time.

Regardless of Emily's personal reasons for living nun-like, readers have found much to admire, enjoy, and appreciate about her poems. Though they often baffle upon first encounter, they reward readers mightily who stay with each poem and dig out the nuggets of golden wisdom.

New England Family

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born December 10, 1830, in Amherst, MA, to Edward Dickinson and Emily Norcross Dickinson. Emily was the second child of three: Austin, her older brother who was born April 16, 1829, and Lavinia, her younger sister, born February 28, 1833. Emily died on May 15, 1886.

Emily's New England heritage was strong and included her paternal grandfather, Samuel Dickinson, who was one of the founders of Amherst College. Emily's father was a lawyer and also was elected to and served one term in the state legislature (1837-1839); later between 1852 and 1855, he served one term in the U.S. House of Representative as a representative of Massachusetts.

Education

Emily attended the primary grades in a one room school until being sent to Amherst Academy, which became Amherst College. The school took pride in offering college level course in the sciences from astronomy to zoology. Emily enjoyed school, and her poems testify to the skill with which she mastered her academic lessons.

After her seven year stint at Amherst Academy, Emily then entered Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in the fall of 1847. Emily remained at the seminary for only one year. Much speculation has been offered regarding Emily's early departure from formal education, from the atmosphere of religiosity of the school to the simple fact that the seminary offered nothing new for the sharp minded Emily to learn. She seemed quite content to leave in order to stay home. Likely her reclusiveness was beginning, and she felt the need to control her own learning and schedule her own life activities.

As a stay-at-home daughter in 19th century New England, Emily was expected to take on her share of domestic duties, including housework, likely to help prepare said daughters for handling their own homes after marriage. Possibly, Emily was convinced that her life would not be the traditional one of wife, mother, and householder; she has even stated as much: God keep me from what they call households.

In this householder-in-training position, Emily especially disdained the role a host to the many guests that her father's community service required of his family. She found such entertaining mind-boggling, and all that time spent with others meant less time for her own creative efforts. By this time in her life, Emily was discovering the joy of soul-discovery through her art.

Although many have speculated that her dismissal of the current religious metaphor landed her in the atheist camp, Emily's poems testify to a deep spiritual awareness that far exceeds the religious rhetoric of the period. In fact, Emily was likely discovering that her intuition about all things spiritual demonstrated an intellect that far exceeded any of her family's and compatriots' intelligence. Her focus became her poetry—her main interest in life.

Publication

Very few of Emily's poems appeared in print during her lifetime. And it was only after her death the her sister Vinnie discovered the bundles of poems, called fascicles, in Emily's room. A total of 1775 individual poems have made their way to publication. The first publicans of her works to appear, gathered and edited by Mabel Loomis Todd, a supposed paramour of Emily's brother, and the editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson had been altered to the point of changing the meanings of her poems. The regularization of her technical achievements with grammar and punctuation obliterated the high achievement that the poet had so creatively accomplished.

Readers can thank Thomas H. Johnson, who in the mid 1950s went to work at restoring Emily's poems to their, at least near, original. His doing so restored her many dashes, spacings, and other grammar/mechanical features that earlier editors had "corrected" for the poet—corrections that ultimately resulted in obliteration of the poetic achievement reached by Emily's mystically brilliant talent.

Thomas H. Johnson's The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson

The text I use for commentaries
The text I use for commentaries | Source

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    © 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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