Gerhard Friedrich: On 465 ("I heard a Fly buzz--when I died--")

This poem seems to present two major problems to the interpreter. First, what is the significance of the buzzing fly in relation to the dying person, and second, what is the meaning of the double use of "see" in the last line? An analysis of the context helps to clear up these apparent obscurities, and a close parallel found in another Dickinson poem reinforces such interpretation.

In an atmosphere of outward quiet and inner calm, the dying person collectedly proceeds to bequeath his or her worldly possessions, and while engaged in this activity of "willing," finds his attention withdrawn by a fly's buzzing. The fly is introduced in intimate connection with "my keepsakes" and "what portion of me be assignable"; it follows—and is the culmination of—the dying person's preoccupation with cherished material things no longer of use to the departing owner. In the face of death, and even more of a possible spiritual life beyond death, one's concern with a few earthly belongings is but a triviality, and indeed a distraction from a momentous issue. The obtrusiveness of the inferior, physical aspects of existence, and the busybody activity associated with them, is poignantly illustrated by the intervening insect (cf. the line "Buzz the dull flies on the chamber window," in the poem beginning "How many times these low feet staggered"). Even so small a demonstrative, demonstrable creature is sufficient to separate the dying person from "the light," i.e. to blur the vision, to short-circuit mental concentration, so that spiritual awareness is lost. The last line of the poem may then be paraphrased to read: "Waylaid by irrelevant, tangible, finite objects of little importance, I was no longer capable of that deeper perception which would clearly reveal to me the infinite spiritual reality." As Emily Dickinson herself expressed it, in another Second Series poem beginning "Their height in heaven comforts not":

I'm finite, I can't see.

            . . . .

This timid life of evidence

Keeps pleading, "1 don't know."

 

[#696—Poems, 1891, p. 197]

The dying person does in fact not merely suffer an unwelcome external interruption of an otherwise resolute expectancy, but falls from a higher consciousness, from liberating insight, from faith, into an intensely skeptical mood. The fly's buzz is characterized as "blue, uncertain, stumbling," and emphasis on the finite physical reality goes hand in hand with a frustrating lack of absolute assurance. The only portion of a man not properly "assignable" may be that which dies and decomposes! To the dying person, the buzzing fly would thus become a timely, untimely reminder of man's final, cadaverous condition and putrefaction.

The sudden fall of the dying person into the captivity of an earth-heavy skepticism demonstrates of course the inadequacy of the earlier pseudo-stoicism. What seemed then like composure, was after all only a pause "between the heaves of storm"; the "firmness" of the second stanza proved to be less than veritable peace of mind and soul; and so we have a profoundly tragic human situation, namely the perennial conflict between two concepts of reality, most carefully delineated.

The poem should be compared with its illuminating counterpart of the Second Series, "Their height in heaven comforts not," and may be contrasted with "Death is a dialogue between," "I heard as if I had no ear," and the well-known "I never saw a moor." 

Details

Criticism Overview
Title Gerhard Friedrich: On 465 ("I heard a Fly buzz--when I died--") Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Gerhard Friedrich Criticism Target Emily Dickinson
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 17 Aug 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
Printer Friendly PDF Version
Contexts No Data Tags No Data

Rate this Content

Item Type Criticism
Average Rating 0/100
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
Total votes: 0
Use the above slider to rate this item. You can only submit one rating per item, and your rating will be factored in to the item's popularity on our listings.

Share via Social Media