Emily Dickinson needs no introduction
Emily Dickinson needs no introduction. One of the most prolific and renowned poets in the literary world, Dickinson still remains largely a mystery. She is often labeled as a lifelong recluse who did nothing but sit in her attic all day and scribble poetry. However, Dickinson’s poetry reveals a soul keenly in tune with the human condition. The simple and always relatable poetry of Dickinson serves as her greatest autobiography, and as a testament to humanity itself. She was and remains the master of capturing emotion in a literary statue.
Happiness, anger, envy, surprise—every feeling that man has ever felt flowed from Dickinson’s pen at some point.
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One subject contains all of these emotions, and this subject both haunted and fascinated Emily Dickinson throughout her life: death. The poet wrote passionately about death many times, but one poem—one image–in particular resonated with readers in its stark, memorable simplicity. In “I heard a fly buzz when I died,” Dickinson masterfully interweaves tone, style, and imagery to capture a speaker in the midst of life’s greatest questioning challenge…. its own conclusion.
In the poem, life’s end is represented through the persona of a dying individual. The condition of the terminally ill speaker emerges through the poem’s compact, simplistic, yet conflicted structure and in its one powerful symbolic theme. Consider, for example, the simple sounds which recur and reinforce the speaker’s thoughts. Soft ‘w’ (“Was” (3), “were” (6), “when” (7), “witnessed” (8), “willed” (9), “what” (10), “with” (13), “windows” (15)) and ‘s’ (“signed” (9), “see” (16), “assignable” (11)) sounds give the language a sighing quality, perhaps the labored breaths of someone whose every breath is a precious commodity.
Yet these soft sounds are accentuated by an aggressive assault of ‘st’ syllables (“stillness” (3), “storm” (4), “stumbling”(13)), as if the speaker is struggling with a mental block of resistance. Death also looms in the aphoristic nature of the speaker’s language. With just a few well-chosen words (a dying breath)—“stillness” (3), “wrung” (5), “storm” (4), “stumbling” (13)—the speaker provides powerful insight into the complex feelings which accompany death. Who else but a dying person would understand the value of quality over quantity?
This human conflict is further reinforced by the alternating long and short lines which constitute the final stanzas. While the opening stanzas form near-perfect boxes (the very symbol of control), the frenzied push-pull of the speaker’s closing thoughts offers a concrete snapshot of the inner turmoil that surrounds impending death. The moment of transformation for the speaker—from peaceful resolve to subtle panic—is highlighted by a “Dickinson Dash” (Milani, “Dickinson Analysis”) “….
Could make assignable,–and then/There interposed a fly” (11-12). Can the majesty of death be reduced to a mere fly’s presence? Is the majesty merely an illusion? (Frankowski, “Death”) The fly itself is the anchor symbol in a speaker’s mindset largely devoid of elaborate imagery (Frankowski, “Death”). Throughout the poem, the speaker eludes to a need for some magical spiritual fulfillment: “And breaths were gathering sure/For that last onset, when the king/Be witnessed in his power” (6-8).
However, the only constant—the only true anchor—for the speaker as death approaches is the “uncertain, stumbl[ing], buzz[ing]…fly” (12-13). Does the small creature steal away the speaker’s peace by standing “Between the lights and me” (14)? Or does the fly’s final farewell (its auditory buzz) remind the speaker that he or she need not “see to see” (16). Does true sight come from the eyes, or does true sight—true light in fact—shine from a higher source?
Perhaps the speaker’s musings are not random, but a confessed realization to the most enlightened audience of all, the Creator Himself. Why might one assume that the speaker is addressing God? First, and most simply, the speaker’s narrative occurs after death: “I heard a fly buzz when I died” (1). Yet evidence for the speaker’s intended audience also appears on a deeper level. The abstract diction of the speaker suggests a metaphysical plane: “stillness” (3), “form” (3), “breaths” (6), “power” (8), “light” (14), “air” (3), and even the formless “buzz” (1).
Further, the formal tone (“The stillness round my form” (2); “What portion of me I/Could make assignable” (10-11)) carried throughout the piece would likely be reserved for only the most respected and wise of listeners. In addition, the iambic trimeter rhythm (Milani, “Dickinson Analysis”) of the speaker’s words and the traditional ABCB rhyme scheme summons a classic adherence to timeless laws and beauty. A dying speaker and a celestial audience provide the most powerful backdrop for the poem’s ultimate theme: mental and spiritual conflict.