Emily Dickinson's "I Heard A Fly Buzz When I Died" should be read, I think, with a particular setting in mind—a nineteenth-century deathbed scene. Before the age of powerful anodynes death was met in full consciousness, and the way of meeting it tended to be stereotype. It was affected with a public interest and concern, and was witnessed by family and friends. They crowded the death chamber to wait expectantly a burst of dying energy to bring on the grand act of passing. Commonly it began with last-minute bequests, the wayward were called to repentance, the backslider to reform, gospel hymns were sung, and finally as climax the dying one gave witness in words to the Redeemer's presence in the room, how He hovered, transplendent in the upper air, with open arms outstretched to receive the departing soul. This was death's great moment. Variants there were, of course, in case of repentant and unrepentant sinners. Here in this poem the central figure of the drama is expected to make a glorious exit. The build-up is just right for it, but at the moment of climax "There interposed a fly." And what kind of a fly? A fly "with blue, uncertain stumbling buzz"—a blowfly.
How right is Mr. Gerhard Friedrich in his explication . . . to associate the fly with putrefaction and decay. And how wrong, I think, is Mr. John Ciardi . . . in calling the fly "the last kiss of the world," and speaking of it as one of the small creatures Emily Dickinson so delighted in. She could not possibly have entertained any such view of a blowfly. She was a practical housewife, and every housewife abhors a blowfly. It pollutes everything it touches. Its eggs are maggots. It is as carrion as a buzzard.
What we know of Emily Dickinson gives us assurance that just as she would abhor the blowfly she would abhor the deathbed scene. How devastatingly she disposes of the projected one in the poem. "They talk of hallowed things and embarrass my dog" she writes in 1862 in a letter to Mr. Higginson (Letters, 1958, II, 415).