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03 March 2015

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—
                                                                               F591 (1863)  J465

The heavy irony of this poem renders it nearly comical: the last thing a dying person encounters, rather than the face of God or loving human faces is a "stumbling", buzzing housefly. What an anti-climax! Either in service of or mitigating the comedic potential of the irony is Dickinson's calm and precise narrative voice. She describes the scene from a vantage after death as if offering a summary statement, much in the manner we might make a report to the insurance company about some accident or loss.
        I was reminded of how Aldous Huxley took a very ample injected dose of LSD on his deathbed. It's a gamble. What if it had been a bad trip? What if, instead of grandeur, a tunnel of light, the welcoming face of a grand deity – he saw a fly? We'll never know. But what Dickinson is telling us here is that no matter what solemnity you endeavor, no matter what your plans or expectations, death takes what form it will.
Calliphora vomitoria (bluebottle fly)
        Beneath the stumble and bumble is the fact of flies: they are carrion creatures. This one, buzzing around a dying body, is a grim but fitting preamble to the corpse.  I can imagine how everyone in the room, including the dying person, wished to chase that fly outside if not smash it to smithereens. No one likes a fly in the house, especially flying around the face. But what could they do? Get the flyswatter out and attack the fly as it buzzes around the body? What a quandry. I wonder if Dickinson, who at least poetically enjoyed deathbed watches, had ever seen such an interposing fly and mulled over just what it would be like if it happened to her.
        It would be like being jilted. You expect the King in this ultimate moment and instead you get a bluebottle fly. And there's no going back and doing it over.

The poem is full of hearing and seeing. It begins with sound. There is a buzz, a stillness, and breaths. At the end, more buzzing. For sight there are the onlookers' eyes, once weeping but now "wrung…dry". The expected King is to be "witnessed". The Fly is seen at the end, it's uncertain blue body the last sight of the dying speaker. At the end, when the eyes, or Windows, fail, she can no longer look out; she can no longer see at all.

Dickinson writes the poem as a double flashback. The narrator is speaking from somewhere beyond death, recounting that experience. She starts with the fly but then flashes back a bit earlier. Before the fly made its unwanted appearance, there was a stereotypical deathbed scene. The air was still, something ike the calm at the center of a hurricane (fittingly called the eye of the storm). The gathered family and friends have run out of tears and begin readying themselves for the final throes of death – the moment when King Jesus is to carry the soul away to its heavenly abode.
        In her final moments the dying person lucidly makes her final will and testament. All is ready. The next line is one of Dickinson's greats, written in the passive voice as if someone were musing wonderingly at an odd thing. "and then it was / There interposed a Fly". Now we are back in time to when the poem started. The narrative is impelled with two more "and then"s as sight is lost, signifying death.

The incongruity of the poem is, I think, meant to deflate death, to bring it into the realm of daily life. To us death is anticipated as momentous. To the cosmos, or the household biota, perhaps not so much. It would consequently be a mistake to expect some grand, transcendental experience to be carried off without a hitch (which may be why Huxley tried to stack the deck with LSD). For some
In an earlier poem, Dickinson claimed that agony was appropriate on the deathbed ("I like a look of Agony" [F339]). The agony is akin to birth pains as the soul transitions; it is also cathartic for the observers.
        In "A throe upon the features" [F105], Dickinson sketches death as first "A throe", then "A hurry in the breath" and finally "An ecstasy of parting". That is the tragedy of the fly: it kills the ecstasy.

Dickinson's language in this popular poem is in stark contrast to the antics of the fly. She peppers the poem with formal and legalistic terms: the King is to "Be witnessed"; she wills her Keepsakes and signs away "What portion of me be / Assignable" (a rather droll way of categorizing material possessions); even the fly is "interposed" between the light and the poet. The disparity between the language of the deathbed scene and the actions of the antic fly adds to the irony.
        That light is no doubt metaphorical as well as descriptive. Within the light should be some vision, some epiphany; even God. What does it mean when a fly blocks that light? I don't think Dickinson meant it as some divine cruelty. It is not the "June Bee" that disappears into the "mocking sky" after tantalizing us with heaven. Nor do I think it is some degraded image of Jesus. It is, at most, a sign of cosmic indifference to the ultimate moment of life. Rather than a demon battling for possession of a precious soul, there is the same nagging, mundane, buzzing annoyance that plagues one throughout the whole of life.


  1. This is an amazing poem.

    It records the process of death -- the failing of the senses -- in a powerful way. The Bardo Thodol (the so-called Tibetan Book of the Dead) states that hearing is the last sense to dissolve in the dying process. ED projects herself into the mind of the dying person and imagines the mind latching onto the "Blue -- uncertain stumbling Buzz --" of a fly in same way that the mind, after a shock of a car accident, might lose reference points and focus on the tap of rain drops on the windshield or notice a gum wrapper on the floor of the car.

    But the fly, as you and Helen Vendler point out, substitutes for the King. ED is not only unwilling to assume a Christian afterlife, her fly is the symbol of mortality and death.

    I love how ED refers to "what portion of me be Assignable" -- the phrase both links the ego to "keepsakes" -- attachments to material objects -- and raises the unanswered question: "what portion of me is not assignable". There is a sense of humor to this stanza that is one of EDs more endearing qualities.

    The last two lines are striking. Suspense is built through the words "and then", "and then". The "Windows" fail. The last words: "could not see to see" have an ambiguous quality -- a sense of "see" as sight and understanding with the consciousness that understands outlasting sight in the same way that the narrator of the poem outlasts and is able to comment on the dying process. These last words rhyme beautifully with "portion of me be" from the prior stanza.

    1. Thanks - the reference to the Bardo Thodol is interesting. I am reminded of her earlier poem ("I felt a Funeral in my Brain") where "all the Heavens were a Bell, /
      And Being, but an Ear".

      I was thrown high and far from the back of a motorcycle once. In the air I knew I would die when I hit the ground. Once on the ground I focused on the smell of the earth and crushed vegetation and found it remarkably potent and clear (the fall did me no real damage -- having been broken by a huge patch of poison ivy ...).

  2. Beautiful commentary, Susan. When I first read the poem, I had a moment of cognitive dissonance at the beginning of the 3rd stanza--"I willed my Keepsakes"--is she taking me one flashback further into the past? I wondered about the fly as a hallucination (funny about Huxley, I didn't know that), and also as a manifestation of the divine presence--she saw the divine in the humblest details of Nature. (Or I've just been reading a lot about Franciscan thought, of late).

    I agree with Anoymous above, the last line is haunting and mysterious. As though she were recounting a dream to which she couldn't remember the end. I wonder if she assigned herself the poetry task of writing all the different (psychological) ways to die. 50 ways to leave your lover, as it were.

    Thanks again for the provocative essay.

    1. I agree that the fly could be a manifestation of the divine presence, in very simple humble terms...although I am sure that the symbolism of the fly in general, being associated with death, was also intended.

      Or maybe it was Beelzebub. :)

  3. Thank you for your essays on Dickinson's poems. One of the most remarkable features of this poem for me is that it is a dead person's perspective. I'm not completely sure, as I am not a Dickinson's scholar, but it seems to me that the last years of her life were like a "life in death", aggravated by her losses ("My life closed twice before its close") and her segregation. On the other hand, she chose to withdraw from the world: her poetic call demanded that she "died" for the outside world as a nun ("A solemn thing—it was—I said—").

    1. "a death in life", sorry

    2. It is remarkable how Dickinson's vantage ranges from various stages of life to various stages of death, odd as that sounds. There is often a lingering consciousness and sometimes a transitional consciousness that blur the boundaries. Her own life, as you point out, can seem died-for-poetry -- but in spite of or because of this, exceedingly and intensely alive.

  4. And what do you make of the very odd linking of metaphor for the atmosphere in the room (LIKE the stillness in the Air/ between the heaves of storm) to the onlookers dry eyes? That is, "The eyes around - had wrung them dry" where 'them' refers to the storm's heaves? So those present cried the rain out of the sky? For me, it sets the stage for the tone of the poem, by making the speaker seem silly and hyperbolic, adding to the overall comic irony.

    1. So glad you brought this up. There really is something rather comic and hyperbolic in the likening of eyes and breaths to a storm's heaving. I take it as the cycle of crying and quiet among the grieving is like the cycle of heaving storm and quiet (or maybe the eye of the storm).

    2. I think that “them” refers to the eyes, she just left out “I” (They had to cry so much because of me dying that now they have no tears left).

  5. "The Stillness in the Room
    Was like the Stillness in the Air —
    Between the Heaves of Storm —"

    Storms do heave the sea, as most would say, but to my nose seasick vomit works as well:

    1868, S. Johnson, Dictionary of English Language
    “to retch and end by vomiting”

    ED’s Webster: "To heave up, to relinquish; [so to throw up [Vulgar.]"

  6. “And Breaths were gathering firm
    For that last Onset”

    The death rattle

  7. What a wonderful story line, "and then it was / There interposed a Fly". I see a group of gathered children, intently listening, when suddenly “a Fly …. interposed”. What a tension breaker, a comic relief. ED loved entertaining children, e.g., 'I know some lonely Houses off the Road'.

    A second “Dickinson great line” we mortals would not likely imagine:

    . . . . and then
    I could not see to see—

    Death from the dying’s side of death, imagination of a genius.

    P.S., Please correct me if I'm wrong: "There interposed a Fly"; inverted, yes, but sure sounds active.