I Heard a Fly Buzz - When I Died

“I Heard a Fly Buzz - When I Died”
A poem by Emily Dickinson
Analyzed by Kailey Horacek, Matthew Wessner, Vivian
Spearman, and Ryan Berger
Line 1
I heard a Fly buzz- when I diedOur Interpretation:
It is strange that so much
attention is being paid to
a fly at such a grave
moment. We also believe
that this line expresses
situational irony because
a person can not hear if
Critic’s Interpretation:
Critic Mary K. Ruby states
“that the experience in this
poem is being described
from a unique point of view”
(1). She explains that it is
rather strange that the
narrator would be focusing
on something like a fly
buzzing at the moment of
their death (1). The first line
leaves the reader wondering
the significance of the fly
and why it is “the speaker’s
most immediate and
enduring memory of the
experience of death” (1).
Lines 2 - 4
The stillness round my form/ Was like the stillness in the
air/ Between the heaves of storm.
Our Interpretation:
The surroundings of the
narrator’s dying body are
calm – as calm as the
eye of a storm. In the
eye of a storm, there is
peace, but more tumult
is found both before and
after the tranquility.
Before the eye is the
narrator’s life; the storm
after the eye is the
narrator’s afterlife.
Critic’s Interpretation:
Ruby reports that the
“stillness” is the “absence
of movement and noise”
in the room (1). “Heaves
of Storm” refers to the
silence in the eye of a
storm; Ruby goes on to
apply the metaphor to
the idea that the speaker
finds herself in between
the storms of life and
Line 5 - 6
The Eyes around-had wrung them dry- /And
Breaths were gathering firm
Our Interpretation:
The people surrounding
the speaker cried until
tears would no longer
come and each breath
they took became
heavier because they
were so overcome with
Critic’s Interpretation:
Ruby explains that the “Eyes”
literally refers to the eyes
belonging to the people
mourning over their dying
loved one (2). The phrase
“had wrung them dry” refers
to the fact that the mourners
“had cried all the tears that
they could during this
exhausting death
ritual”(2).”Breaths” represents
the mourners and each breath
they take (2). “Gathering firm”
possible means that the
mourners “have gathered
together to support eachother
in the fixed and unalterable
understanding that the loved
one will die…”(2).
Lines 7-8
For that last Onset- when the King/ Be witnessedin the Room
Critic’s Interpretation:
Our Interpretation:
During the last
moments in her life
God comes to take her
soul to heaven. She is
growing closer to her
final breath, so “God’s
presence” is in the
Ruby states that “that last Onset”
most likely means “the final
stage of the dying process”(2).
She also explains that “because
the mourners in the room were
most likely to be 19th-century
American Protestants, they
would have been expecting
some formal sign that their
loved one has been welcomed
into the Kingdom of God, or into
the arms of Christ the ‘King.’
Perhaps the speaker recognizes
the eagerness of her loved ones
to ‘witness’ Christ in the room.
This expectation is quite ironic
because the poem’s speaker
sees not Christ but a common
blowfly” (2).
Lines 9-12
I willed my Keepsakes—Signed away/
What portion of me be/ Assignable—and then it was/
There interposed a Fly—
Our Interpretation: The
speaker gave away all that
was tangible in their will.
While the speaker was
thinking over the things
they gave away a fly buzzed
Critic’s Interpretation:
Ruby explains that “the
speaker describes the
completion of personal
business as an important
part of the dying
process”(2). The speaker
signed away their
“keepsakes” to family
members and friends in their
will (2). Lines 10-11 most
like “refers to the dying
person’s request for the
memorial ceremony and
disposal of the body”(2).
Line 12 “could mean that the
speaker is interrupted from
the social ritual of death by
the fly’s presence”(2).
Lines 13-14
With Blue—uncertain stumbling Buzz—
/ Between the light—and me—
Our Interpretation: The
speaker’s soul is between
her physical being and
heaven when the fly buzz
by and interrupts the
Critic’s Interpretation:
Ruby states that “the color blue is
usually [Emily] Dickinson’s symbol for
eternity. Here, perhaps it is used
ironically because the fly, as a
creature that lays its eggs in dead
flesh, is usually symbolic of
mortality”(2). The fly buzzing is
referred to as “uncertain” and
“stumbling” could indicate the sound a
fly makes when it moves “in and out
of human consciusness”(2). In these
lines the fly interferes when the
speaker begins to enter the “light”(2).
The critic then explains “here, the
light can have two meanings. Literally,
it describes the actual light of day and
touches upon the fact that the
speaker’s sense of sight is failing at
the moment of death. Figuratively, the
‘light’ might mean the light of Christ,
or the spiritual world. In any case, it
is the sound of the fly that interrupts
the speaker’s experience”(2).
Lines 15-16
And then the Windows failed—and then/
I could not see to see—
Our Interpretation: The
“windows” refer to the
speaker’s eyes
because eyes are often
described as “the
windows to the soul”.
At this point in time,
the speaker’s eyes are
closing because they
are dying.
Critic’s Interpretation:
Ruby explains that the “Windows” has
one of two meanings, “perhaps the
speaker is transposing the experience
of the light failing (blindness) to the
windows, describing the loss of the
sense of sight in terms of an external,
inanimate object”(2). “Windows”
could also be “a metaphor for the
eyes, much in the sense that people
call eyes the windows of the soul”(2).
The last line is quite literally a
“description of blindness”(2). It could
be the loss of physical vision or it
could also be describing spiritual
blindness, “indicating that there is no
great spiritual vision after death but
rather nothingness”(2). The second
explanation stays true to “Dickinson’s
Reputation as a skeptic”(2).
Literary Terms
• Symbolism is the use of symbols in order to represent
“I heard a fly buzz when I died”
The fly is symbolic for the soul.
“And then the windows failed”
Windows is symbolic for the eyes
Literary Terms Continued
A simile is an expression which describes a person or
thing as being similar to someone or something else
using “like” or “as.”
“the stillness round my form
Was like the stillness in the air
Between the heaves of storm.”
This is a simile because it compares the stillness in the
room to that of the eye of a storm.
Literary Terms Continued
An allusion is an indirect reference to someone or
“for the last onset, when the king
Be witnessed in his power.”
This is an allusion to God, Jesus Christ, and the
Christian religion’s acceptance of the dead.
The whole poem is an extended metaphor of the fly
as the soul.
An extended metaphor is also a metaphor developed at
great length, occurring frequently in or throughout a
The whole poem is also a metonymy, or a figure of
speech used in rhetoric in which a thing or concept is
not called by its own name, but by the name of
something intimately associated with that thing or
concept, for the soul being the fly.
The theme of this poem could be considered Dichotomy,
or the division between two opposing sides like body
and soul.
Contribution to American Literature
Emily Dickinson significantly altered poetry and created
a whole new form of poetry. Experimenting with language
and form her poems maintained the outward appearance of
quatrains and three iambic feet; Emily Dickinson used the
form originally inspired by Isaac Watts. Dickinson blended
her own poetic language using words she created and
sentences that were grammatically irregular. Dickinson
capitalizes nouns regardless of whether they are proper or
not as well as adds hyphens before phrases she wants to
bring attention to. Her most significant contribution is the
contribution of irregularities. Dickinson introduced slant and
off rhymes which Higginson initially named irregularities.
Slant and off rhymes are near rhymes, oblique rhymes, or
rhymes using assonance or consonance on the final
consonants. These “deformities” cause the reader to
recognize the importance of a line through the shock of an
irregular pattern.
Emily Dickinson’s Idiosyncrasies
Emily Dickinson usually uses quatrains. “I Heard a Fly Buzz When
I Died” is composed of quatrains
Many of her poems are composed of borrowed bits of nursery
rhymes; the sound, title, and subject of this poem (a fly) sounds,
to the non-poetic ear, like a nursery rhyme.
Emily Dickinson uses slant rhyme which is a near rhyme, oblique
rhyme, or a rhyme using assonance or consonance on the final
consonants. This appears in “I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died” in
lines 2 and 4 and 6 and 8.
Throughout “I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died” there are many
instances when she adds hyphens to phrases she finds important.
In addition she inserts hyphens before phrases she holds
Contemporary Relevance
This poem should be part of the literary canon taught
in high schools because it shows mortality and the
acceptance of death. College is approaching and after
college, marriage, then children, and eventually death.
Death plays a huge part in life. Emily Dickinson’s poem
draws the question of what will happen after death; a
question on the forefront of any mature mind. Everyone
wonders what happens after the heart stops beating and
the eyes shut and Dickinson addresses a possibility that the
soul can be like a fly, trying to find the light, escaping the
body. In high school every person has a developed opinion
of what will happen when this life is over, Dickinson’s poem
is perfect of a high school level because poses the same
question in everyone else’s mind.
The End