Sunday, August 15, 2010

A poem from Emily Dickinson


I heard a fly buzz when I died;
The stillness round my form
Was like the stillness in the air
Between the heaves of storm.

The eyes beside had wrung them dry,
And breaths were gathering sure
For that last onset, when the king
Be witnessed in his power.

I willed my keepsakes, signed away
What portion of me I
Could make assignable,-and then
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.


The death in this poem is painless, yet the vision of death it presents is horrifying, even gruesome. The appearance of an ordinary, insignificant fly at the climax of a life at first merely startles and disconcerts us. But by the end of the poem, the fly has acquired dreadful meaning. Clearly, the central image is the fly. It makes a literal appearance in three of the four stanzas and is what the speaker experiences in dying.

The room is silent except for the fly. The poem describes a lull between "heaves," suggesting that upheaval preceded this moment and that more upheaval will follow. It is a moment of expectation, of waiting. There is "stillness in the air," and the watchers of her dying are silent. And still the only sound is the fly's buzzing. The speaker's tone is calm, even flat; her narrative is concise and factual.

The people witnessing the death have exhausted their grief (their eyes are "wrung dry" of tears). Her breathing indicates that "that last onset" or death is about to happen. "Last onset" is an oxymoron; "onset" means a beginning, and "last" means an end. For Christians, death is the beginning of eternal life. Death brings revelation, when God or the nature of eternity becomes known. This is why "the king / Be witnessed in his power." The king may be God, Christ, or death; think about which reading you prefer and why.

She is ready to die; she has cut her attachments to this world (given away "my keepsakes") and anticipates death and its revelation. Are the witnesses also waiting for a revelation through her death? Ironically the fly, not the hoped-for king of might and glory, appears. The crux of this poem lies in the way you interpret this discrepancy. Since the king is expected and the fly appears, are they to be associated? If the fly indicates the meaning of death, what is that meaning?

Does the fly suggest any realities of death--smell, decay? Flies do, after all, feed on carrion (dead flesh). Does this association suggest anything about the dying woman's vision of death? or the observers' vision? Is she-- are they--seeing the future as physical decay only? Does the fly's fulfilling their expectations indicate that death has no spiritual significance, that there is no eternity or immortality for us? There are other interpretations of the fly. The fly may stand for Beelzebub, who is also known as lord of the flies. Sometimes Beelzebub is used as another name for Satan; sometimes it refers to any devil; in Milton's Paradise Lost, Beelzebub is Satan's chief lieutenant in hell. If the King whom the observers and/or the speaker is waiting for turns out to be the devil, is there still irony? How is the meaning of the poem affected by this reading? For example, does the poem become more cheerful? What would Dickinson be saying about eternity? Can the poem support more than one of these interpretations of the fly?

What is the effect of the fly being the only sign of life ("buzz") at the end of the poem? To extend this question, is it significant that the only sign of vitality and aliveness in the entire poem is the fly?

For literal-minded readers, a dead narrator speaking about her death presents a problem, perhaps an unsurmountable problem. How can a dead woman be speaking? Less literal readers may face appalling possibilities. If the dead woman can still speak, does this mean that dying is perpetual and continuous? Or is immortality a state of consciousness in an eternal present?

"I heard a fly buzz when I died" is one of Emily Dickinson's finest opening lines. It effectively juxtaposes the trivial and the momentous; the movement from one to the other is so swift and so understated and the meaning so significant that the effect is like a blow to an emotional solar plexus (solar plexus: pit of the stomach). Some readers find it misleading because the first clause ("I heard a fly buzz") does not prepare for the second clause ("when I died"). Is the dying woman or are the witnesses misled about death? does the line parallel their experience and so the meaning of the poem?


Anonymous said...

Robyn wrote:
"Poor Emily suffered severly from clinical depression... She locked herself away from the world for the last half of her life, from what I understand. But it is through this illness that she was able to make such beauty out of ugliness. That's what's so awesome about her style. She feels too much. She can hear the fly because she was already dead before she died."

Jabacue said...

I liked this poem. I 'see' it as a fleeting thought had by the dying person who could still 'notice' a simple fly. Everyone else in the room was 'dead' with grief and the only thing alive was a fly....getting along with his search of food.
The body is just the 'holder' of the soul/spirit/energy for the individual. Just like any living creature it, the body, decays and gets recycled.

I found this poem very peaceful actually as I sit at my computer on this very humid afternoon in Nova Scotia. Not scary at all....maybe I'm missing's the humidity! Honest!

Stew said...

Like most great minds, they are not recognized until after they are gone. I believe that Emily was in-fact dead already when she wrote this. If she could have only known how alert and alive she was. Perhaps people just didn't understand her.
I too, find this poem peaceful. We've just had a welcome two day break from the humidity. It's been a sticky one this year. Makes standing in the parking lot in my black suit, quite the experience.