I Heard a Fly Buzz
by Emily Dickinson
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 portions 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 –
A. The Atheist Reading: The narrator is dying; she expects Christ (“the King”) to come at her death but all she gets is a fly.
B. The Damned Reading: The narrator is dying; she expects Christ but gets a fly, a fiendish, satanic creature.
C. The Saved Reading: Here there are at least two possibilities, which I’ll get to.
Let’s look at the atheist reading first, since I think we can dispel it quickly. In support of such a reading, the poem ends with no dramatic post life experience. Christ doesn’t come. The moment of death is dramatized with a failing of the senses: “I could not see to see.“ A fly is an insect that hovers over carrion, a dead piece of flesh that has no further consciousness. The fly, then, would serve as an emblem for materialism, supporting an absence of an afterlife.
However, there are strong arguments that undermine it. First we know that Dickinson was a believer. She may have evolved to an unconventional Christianity, but it was still solidly Christian. Just two poems before “I Heard a Fly Buzz” in Dickinson’s catalogue of poetry is a poem clearly displaying her faith, “I live with Him—I see His face.” This poem was probably written within days of our poem under analysis. (For an account of Dickinson’s faith in her poetry, see In Light of Christ: Writings in the Western Tradition by Lucy Beckett, Ignatius Press, p. 424-30.)
Of course she may have suspended her faith for the sake of this poem but there are way too many examples of her being not just a religious person, but a devout person. More importantly, while the poem does end with a failure of sensation, the poetic stance is of a person looking back in time. It’s in past tense: “I heard a fly buzz,” a sort of circling back from the ending experience. She has died, and she’s recalling those final moments in an afterlife. Some sort of consciousness is there, implied by the narrative voice, only not of a flesh and blood, living consciousness. If she was really suggesting atheism, she could easily have taken a different poetic stance and come out with a very similar poem.
The damned reading is rather interesting, and I think harder to disprove. Is a fly a sort of inversion of the normal dove emblem of the Holy Spirit? Is it some sort of demonic angel? Is it Satan himself, sometimes referred to as Beelzebub (or other times it’s the name of one of his deputies), a name with a “buzz” sound to it? This time we can’t rely on her biography or other supporting poetry to contradict this. In humility any Christian knows their salvation is not guaranteed, and she may have taken this fancy and dramatized the possibility.
Still, there is one thing the poem lacks to support that reading. There is no rationale for her going to hell. The center of the poem is about an organized preparation: the acceptance of imminent death, the waiting for “the last onset,” the willing away of “keepsakes,” the signing away of the “portions” of the self. Such preparation of the end would typically include a confession, a setting right of one’s trespasses. I love the phrasing, “Signed away/What portions of me be/Assignable.” It’s not just material articles she’s alluding to—that would be redundant to willing away her keepsakes—but an inner part of her, a signing away of her sins. She has made her peace with God and there would be no reason for going to hell. Unless her point is that even then you can still go to hell. But if that were so then she rhetorically would need more to flesh that point out since it goes against common understanding. With that, this reading is not probable.
So let’s look at saved readings. Here there are two possibilities.
Let me take the simple one first. The fly is a sort of weird angel, come to draw her heavenward. Or it could be Christ Himself, the King in a rather humble insect mode. Death would be seen not as some great momentous event as expected at the beginning of the poem, but a rather ordinary, common event. The rhetorical device here would be contrast, the expectation of Christ the King versus the reality of the humble fly, and that would be analogous to the expectation of death as momentous verses common. That is a possible reading but it doesn’t really explain that last stanza.
All three of the above readings cannot explain why the fly moves “with Blue uncertain stumbling Buzz.” That is the most remarkable line of the poem. Why is it blue and why does it stumble? Would Christ stumble? Would Satan stumble? Certainly a fly over carrion would not be stumbling.
Another way to read the poem is that the fly is her soul coming out at the moment of her death, that moment of stillness “between the heaves of storm.” The last six lines dramatize that fraction of a second where the soul has come out and the body is momentarily still functioning. Christ the King is there in the light, coming from the window. Flies are drawn to light, and so interposed. Her soul is drawn to Christ, as a fly is drawn to light. Her bodily eyes in that moment of death are seeing her soul as a fly leave her body and head toward the window’s light. “And then the windows failed” is a wonderful way to phrase her death. Windows don’t fail, unless they break, and that’s not what’s happening here. It’s how her eyes would sense her death, a failing to further function.
So why is the buzz stumbling and blue? First let’s appreciate that line. The sound effect is wonderful, alliterating the bilabial “b” consonant (blue, second syllable of stumbling, buzz) to simulate the fly sound. Second, stumbling is what happens when one is unsure of one’s self. She, in the form of a soul, has just crossed over into a new mode of existence and hasn’t gotten her bearings and balance yet. But why blue? Sounds don’t have color. A description of one sense with another sense, here describing sound as a color, is a form of synesthesia, a description of a perception that is so intense that it crosses senses. Death has just occurred, Christ is shining before her, all experiences that she has never felt. The new perception is unlike common perception, a sort of camera filter transitioning hue. Why blue? Besides the alliteration, perhaps it’s suggestive of the sky, the path toward heaven, perhaps suggestive of peace, perhaps suggestive of death—a sort of black with light—perhaps suggestive of a body of water, of a new beginning.
I hope you enjoyed the poem and my analysis. So which reading makes most sense to you? Or is there another reading altogether you can think of? If there is anything you can add, please do. I also hope next time you see a fly in the house you will think of this poem as I do. I leave you with a clip of a dramatized reading of the poem.