465 (I heard a Fly buzz——when I died——)
Not only does the frame of the conversion narrative enable us to categorize a great number of Dickinson's poems, it also provides insight into some of her most formally singular narrative poems, namely, those in which a subject addresses us from beyond the grave. Our unbounded subjectivity can only be perceptible at moments of extreme crises that exceed systems of explanation and semiotic codes. Birth would be one such extreme, but since an infant does not have the dual persepective language gives, perhaps the most primal scene at which the duality between our socially constructed selves and our embodiment can actually be witnessed or narrated is death. In "I heard a Fly buzz -- when I died," Dickinson employs the Christian narrative model, with its particular eschatological frame of experience, to tell of a deathwatch such as I have cited above, but her narrative fails to produce the reality that the Christian narrative represents.
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 portion 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 --
The narrative that creates this drama is about "that last Onset -- when the King / Be witnessed -- in the Room -- ." For the witnesses in the room, the dying speaker's countenance and her last words will necessarily represent either Christ's presence or absence. The subject's life might be described as a narrative life; in other words, the subject has become the object of a narrative, her subjectivity reduced to the portion of a life that can be narrated as the story of Christ's coming. The authoritative "sense of an ending" created by the prior narrative (the second coming) is reflected in the secular ritual of redistributing one's property before death as well as by the religious ritual of the deathwatch. Both institutions recognize a dualistic self. The speaker of this poem knows herself through the narrative version of identity as "portions assignable" (material, bodily) and unassignable (unknown, soul). In effect, by writing a will she divides herself from earthly life. As the text of a dualistic self the will reflects back to its author the difference between bodily and spiritual life. Once the will is written, the author is past writing and this earthly life. The remainder of life is lived in an inferential space between a body and soul at least provisionally identified with sensory perception. The account of this scene, which I have just given, might have been told by anyone in the room, even before entering the room, because the Christian narrative precedes and formulates the experience of this community of witnesses. But with the intervention of the fly, the point of view can only be that of the subject of the enounced. In her experience the narrative frame breaks down. The random presence of the fly usurps the place of the king; the unexpected, meaningless event, seen within the narrative frame, becomes the significant event. The random significance of the fly thus points to the random significance of the narrative frame itself. The fly prevents the speaker from seeing the light; it distracts her from the appropriate (Christian) sense of an ending. But the fly is only an externalized form of the fact that the body of the speaker itself interrupted the narrative, as the speaker experienced from within her body what there was in the room beyond the narrative. The body, it turns out, like the soul, is a portion of the self that cannot be signed away. In fact, while the thoughts of the people in the room have been organized by the Christian narrative, unreferenced bodily presence has also pervaded the room: the anonymous, plural "Eyes" and "Breaths." Given the two competing frames of experience, the Christian narrative and the body, there arises an ambiguity in the last line of this poem, which can be formulated as two questions: was there more to see -- a world beyond experience -- and, how is it that the speaker keeps speaking after she claims she "could not see," presumably meaning she died, since she goes on to say "to see" again? This second "to see" repeats the gesture of the entire poem; it exceeds the limits of narratability itself -- to represent a speaker who speaks after death. The body as self or as object in relation to God cannot serve as a sign of God's presence because the individual's experience of being embodied has become its own reality -- a sign of itself. The experience of being embodied has lost its referent; subjectivity is only articulated as bodily presence. Dickinson is writing about the unreferencing of the body from forms of subjectivity other than itself. This daring gesture figuratively places experience before meaning and language as sign before language as signifier, but in doing so it also attempts to realize through representation a more radical shift: it embodies the self before constructing that embodiment. While I would hasten to add that the body is functioning as a sign rather than some essential body, it is not functioning as a sign within the system of signs that is the Christian narrative. The Christian narrative recognizes a self that has a body and a soul. Dickinson's text recognizes a subjectivity that cannot be split into this dichotomy. Like the body, the text must register presence and the gesture of writing, but it need not delimit either. The question for interpretation is what is it to be alive (as symbolized by the fly) rather than what is the meaning of being alive (as symbolized by the King). "I heard a fly buzz when I died" is told after death, where there can be no writing according to the Christian narrative's frame of experience. If it does not tell us what happened after death, constricted as it is by its relationship to the prior narrative, the poem nonetheless, as a text, exists beyond the death in exactly the eschatological space the Christian narrative invents. In many of her narrative poems situated around a death, Dickinson distinguishes the Christian representation of death from the sensations she experiences as a witness of death (and we experience as readers). These distinctive poems are situated at the scene of death neither because Dickinson has any peculiar fascination for death, nor simply because she is using stock conventions also to be found in the poetry of her contemporaries. Dickinson uses the convention of the deathwatch as a way to consider the self at a moment when its culturally-assigned significance is weakest, and she does so in order to escape the Christian narrative frame. [. . . .] The object status of a subject within a narrative is dramatically played out in Dickinson's frequently discussed poem, "My Life had stood -- a Loaded Gun -- ." In this poem the subject fears the permanence of the text as much as death, or rather, fears the overdetermination of her subjectivity by the text more than "the power to die."
From "Breaking the Eschatological Frame: Dickinson's Narrative Acts" Emily Dickinson Journal Vol. 1, No.1, 1992.
Throughout, the "eye /I" of the speaker struggles to retain power. Ironically, although the final, haunting sentence has to do with sight, "I could not see to see--," at no time in the course of the poem can the speaker maintain an ordered visual grasp of the world. "The Ear is the last Face," Dickinson wrote to Higginson. We hear after we see." Thus is it in this work. We begin this poem about seeing—with sound.
In the first stanza, the "I" can still assert straightforward utterances of fact in a comprehensive manner; however, the faculty of sight has already begun to slip away. In the following stanza, "Eyes" belong only to others—ghostly, anonymous presences gathered to attest to God’s action. The speaker no longer retains either an autonomous "I" or the physical power of eyesight. A volitional self is recollected in stanza three, but the memory is one of relinquishment, the execution of the speaker’s last "will" and testament. Indeed, one element of the poem’s bitter contrast is concentrated in the juxtaposition of the ruthless will of the Deity, Who determines fate, and the speaker’s "will"—reduced by now to the legal document that has been designed to restore order in the aftermath of dissolution. And at this moment of double "execution," when tacit acknowledgement of God’s ineluctable force is rendered, identity begins to fritter away. The speaker formulates thought in increasingly strained synecdochic and metonymical tropes. The possessions of the dying Voice are designated as the "portions of me [that] be / Assignable--," not as discrete objects that belong to someone and are separate from her, but as blurred extensions of a fraying self that can no longer define the limits of identity. The "uncertain" quality that inheres in the speaker’s eyesight is assigned to the "stumbling Buzz" of the fly; it is the speaker’s faculties that have "failed," but in the verse, the speaker attributes failure to the "Windows." The confusions inherent in this rhetorical finale of the poem aptly render the atomizing self as the stately centrifugal force of dissolution begins to scatter being and consciousness.
Like many other proleptic poems, "I heard a Fly buzz—" serves several functions. It does provide a means of "Looking at Death"; in addition, however, it strives to define both death and life in unaccustomed ways. Thus it is centrally concerned to posit "seeing" as a form of power: "to see" is to assert authority and autonomy—the authority to define life in ways that will be meaningful not only to oneself, perhaps, but to other as well, and autonomy to reject the criteria and limits God would force upon us, even if such an act will inevitably elicit God’s wrath. Death robs us of all bodily sensations; more important, however, it wrests this autonomous authority from us, the final and most devastating wound, "I could not see to see--." Ironically, the strategy of the poem mimics God’s method, for a reader is enabled to comprehend the value of "sight" here principally by experiencing the horror of its loss. Moreover, the poem even suggest that some ways of engaging with the world during "life" may be no more than forms of animated death. Eating, sleeping, exercising the physical faculties—these alone do not describe "life"; and many pass through existence with a form of "blindness" that fatally compromises the integrity of self. Thus the poem offer a counsel to the living by strongly implying the crucial importance of daring "to see" while life still lasts, and one way in which the poet can be Representative is by offering a model of active insight that is susceptible of emulation.
From Emily Dickinson. Copyright © 1988 by Cynthia Wolff.
Like many people in her period, Dickinson was fascinated by death-bed scenes. How, she asked various correspondents, did this or that person die? In particular, she wanted to know if their deaths revealed any information about the nature of the afterlife. In this poem, however, she imagines her own death-bed scene, and the answer she provides is grim, as grim (and, at the same time, as ironically mocking), as anything she ever wrote.
In the narrowing focus of death, the fly's insignificant buzz, magnified tenfold by the stillness in the room, is all that the speaker hears. This kind of distortion in scale is common. It is one of the 'illusions' of perception. But here it is horrifying because it defeats every expectation we have. Death is supposed to be an experience of awe. It is the moment when the soul, departing the body, is taken up by God. Hence the watchers at the bedside wait for the moment when the 'King' (whether God or death) 'be witnessed' in the room. And hence the speaker assigns away everything but that which she expects God (her soul) or death (her body) to take.
What arrives instead, however, is neither God nor death but a fly, '[w]ith Blue—uncertain--stumbling Buzz,' a fly, that is, no more secure, no more sure, than we are. Dickinson had associated flies with death once before in the exquisite lament, 'How many times these low feet/staggered.' In this poem, they buzz 'on the/ chamber window,' and speckle it with dirt (# 187, F, 152), reminding us that the housewife, who once protected us from such intrusions, will protect us no longer. Their presence is threatening but only in a minor way, 'dull' like themselves. They are a background noise we do not have to deal with yet.
In 'I heard a Fly buzz,' on the other hand, there is only one fly and its buzz is not only foregrounded. Before the poem is over, the buzz takes up the entire field of perception, coming between the speaker and the 'light' (of day, of life, of knowledge). It is then that the 'Windows' (the eyes that are the windows of the soul as well as, metonymically, the light that passes through the panes of glass) 'fail' and the speaker is left in darkness--in death, in ignorance. She cannot 'see' to 'see' (understand).
Given that the only sure thing we know about 'life after death' is that flies--in their adult form and more particularly, as maggots--devour us, the poem is at the very least a grim joke. In projecting her death-bed scene, Dickinson confronts her ignorance and gives back the only answer human knowledge can with any certainty give. While we may hope for an afterlife, no one, not even the dying, can prove it exists.
Like 'Four Trees--upon a solitary/Acre, ' 'I heard a Fly buzz' represents an extreme position. I believe that to Dickinson it was a position that reduced human life to too elementary and meaningless a level. Abdicating belief, cutting off God's hand, as in 'I heard a Fly buzz' (a poem that tests precisely this situation), leaves us with nothing. Not just God, but we ourselves are reduced--a fact that has become painfully evident in twentieth-century literature. . . .
From Emily Dickinson, Woman Poet. Copyright © 1990 by Paulk Bennett. Reprinted by permission of the author.
And since this was a strange poet, I shall begin with two of the stranger poems; they deal with Death, but they are not from the elegiac poems about suffering the death of others, they are previsions of her own death. In neither does Death present himself as absolute in some brutal majesty, nor in the role of God's dreadful minister. The transaction is homely and easy, for the poet has complete sophistication in these matters, having attended upon deathbeds, and knowing that the terror of the event is mostly for the observers. In the first poem (# 465) a sort of comic or Gothic relief interposes, by one of those homely inconsequences which may be observed in fact to attend even upon desperate human occasions.
The other poem (#712) is a more imaginative creation. It is a single sustained metaphor, all of it analogue or "vehicle" as we call it nowadays, though the character called Death in the vehicle would have borne the same name in the real situation or "tenor." Death's victim now is the shy spinster, so he presents himself as a decent civil functionary making a call upon a lady to take her for a drive.
From "Emily Dickinson: A Poet Restored," in Perspectives USA (1956) Copyright © 1956 by John Crowe Ransom.
We must imagine the speaker looking back on an experience in which her expectations of death were foiled by its reality. The poem begins with the speaker's perception of the fly, not yet a central awareness both because of the way in which the fly manifests itself (as sound) and because of the degree to which it manifests itself (as a triviality). As a consequence of the speaker's belief in the magnitude of the event and the propriety with which it should be enacted, the fly seems merely indecorous, as yet a marginal disturbance, attracting her attention the way in which something we have not yet invested with meaning does. In a poem very much concerned with the question of vision, it is perhaps strange that the dominant concern in stanza one should be auditory. But upon reflection it makes sense, for the speaker is hearing a droning in the background before the source of the noise comes into view. The poem describes the way in which things come into view, slowly.
What is striking in the second stanza is the speaker's lack of involvement in the little drama that is being played out. She is acutely conscious that there will be a struggle with death, but she imagines it is the people around her who will undergo it. Her detachment and tranquility seem appropriate if we imagine them to come in the aftermath of pain, a subject that is absent in the poem and whose absence helps to place the experience at the moment before death. At such a moment, the speaker's concern is focused on others, for being the center of attention with all eyes upon her, she is at leisure to return the stare. Her concern with her audience continues in the third stanza and prompts the tone of officiousness there. Wanting to set things straight, the speaker wishes to add the finishing touches to her life, to conclude it the way one would a business deal. The desire to structure and control experience is not, however, carried out in total blindness, for she is clearly cognizant of those "Keep-sakes—" not hers to give. Even at this point her conception of dying may be a preconception but it is not one founded on total ignorance.
The speaker has been imagining herself as a queen about to leave her people, conscious of the majesty of the occasion, presiding over it. She expects to witness death as majestic, too, or so one infers from the way in which she speaks of him in stanza two. The staginess of the conception, however, has little to do with what Charles Anderson calls "an ironic reversal of the conventional attitudes of [Dickinson's] time and place toward the significance of the moment of death." If it did, the poem would arbitrate between the social meanings and personal ones. But the conflict between preconception and perception takes place inside. Or rather preconception gives way only to darkness. For at the conclusion of the third stanza the fly "interpose[s]," coming between the speaker and the onlookers, between her predictive fantasy of the event and its reality, between life and death. The fact that the fly obscures the former allows the speaker to see the latter. Perspective suddenly shifts to the right thing: from the ritual of dying to the fact of death. It is, of course, the fly who obliterates the speaker's false notions of death, for it is with his coming that she realizes that she is the witness and he the king, that the ceremony is a "stumbling" one. It is from a perspective schooled by the fly that she writes.
As several previous discussions of the poem have acknowledged, the final stanza begins with a complicated synesthesia: "With Blue—uncertain stumbling Buzz—." The adjective "stumbling" (used customarily to describe only an action) here also describes a sound, and the adverb "uncertain" the quality of that sound. The fusion would not be so interesting if its effect were not to evoke that moment in perception when it is about to fail. As in a high fever, noises are amplified, the light in the room takes on strange hues, one effect seems indistinguishable from another. Although there is a more naturalistic explanation for the word "stumbling" (to describe the way in which flies go in and out of our hearing), the poem is so predicated on the phenomenon of displacement and projection (of the speaker's feelings onto the onlookers, of the final blindness onto the "Windows," of the fact of perception onto the experience of death) that the image here suggests another dramatic displacement—the fusion of the fly's death with her own. Thus flies when they are about to die move as if poisoned, sometimes hurl themselves against a ceiling, pause, then rise to circle again, then drop. At this moment the changes the speaker is undergoing are fused with their agent: her experience becomes one with the fly's. It is her observance of that fly, being mesmerized by it (in a quite literal sense now, since death is quite literal), that causes her mind to fumble at the world and lose grip of it. The final two lines "And then the Windows failed—and then / I could not see to see—" are brilliant in their underlining of the poem's central premise; namely that death is survived by perception, for in these lines we are told that there are two senses of vision, one of which remains to see and document the speaker's own blindness ("and then / I could not see to see—"). The poem thus penetrates to the invisible imagination which strengthens in response to the loss of visible sight.
I mentioned earlier that the poem presumes a shift of perspective, an enlightened change from the preconception of death to its perception. In order to assume that the speaker is educated by her experience, we must assume the fact of it: we must credit the death as a real one. But the fiction required by the poem renders it logically baffling. For although the poem seems to proceed in a linear fashion toward an end, its entire premise is based on the lack of finality of that end, the speaker who survives death to tell her story of it. We are hence left wondering: How does the poem imagine an ending? If it does not, what replaces a sense of an ending? How does it conceive of the relationship between past, present, and future? To address these questions adequately, we need to look at some theories of time against which the poem's own singular conception may more sharply be visible.
From Lyric Time: Dickinson and the Limits of Genre. Copyright © 1979 by The Johns Hopkins UP.
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).
In writing her best poems [Emily Dickinson] was never at the mercy of her emotions or of the official rhetoric. She mastered her themes by controlling her language. She could achieve a novel significance, for example, by starting with a death scene that implies the orthodox questions and then turning the meaning against itself by the strategy of surprise answers. . . . /231/ ["I heard a Fly buzz—when I died"] operates in terms of all the standard religious assumptions of her New England, but with a difference. They are explicitly gathered up in one phrase for the moment of death, with distinct Biblical overtones, 'that last Onset—when the King / Be witnessed—in the Room.' But how is he witnessed?
As the poet dramatizes herself in a deathbed scene, with family and friends gathered round, her heightened senses report the crisis in flat domestic terms that bring to the reader's mind each of the traditional questions only to deny them without even asking them. Her last words were squandered in distributing her 'Keepsakes,' trivial tokens of this life rather than messages from the other. The only sound of heavenly music, or of wings taking flight, was the 'Blue—uncertain stumbling Buzz' of a fly that filled her dying ear. Instead of a final vision of the hereafter, this world simply faded from her eyes: the light in the windows failed and then she 'could not see to see.' The King witnessed in his power is physical death, not God. To take this poem literally as an attempted inside view of the gradual extinction of consciousness and the beginning of the soul's flight into eternity would be to distort its meaning, for this is not an imaginative projection of her own death. In structure, in language, in imagery it is simply an ironic reversal of the conventional attitudes of her time and place toward the significance of the moment of death. Yet mystery is evoked by a single word, that extraordinarily interposed color 'Blue.'
To misread such a poem would be to misunderstand the whole cast of Dickinson's mind. Few poets saw more clearly the boundary between what can and what cannot be comprehended, and so held the mind within its proper limitations. . . . /232/
I read Mr. Gerhard Friedrich's explication . . . of Emily Dickinson's poem with great interest, but I find myself preferring a different explication.
Mr. Friedrich says of the fly: "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.'"
Mr. Friedrich's argument is coherent and respectable, but I feel it tends to make Emily more purely mystical than I sense her to be. I understand that fly to be the last kiss of the world, the last buzz from life. Certainly Emily's tremendous attachment to the physical world, and her especial delight both in minute creatures for their own sake, and in minute actions for the sake of the dramatic implications that can be loaded into them, hardly needs to be documented. Any number of poems illustrate her delight in the special significance of tiny living things. "Elysium is as Far" will do as a single example of her delight in packing a total-life significance into the slightest actions:
What fortitude the Soul contains,
That it can so endure
The accent of a coming Foot—
The opening of a Door—
[#1760—Poems, 1890, p. 46]
I find myself better persuaded, therefore, to think of the fly not as a distraction taking Emily's thoughts from glory and blocking the divine light (When did Emily ever think of living things as a distraction?), but as a last dear sound from the world as the light of consciousness sank from her, i.e. "the windows failed." And so I take the last line to mean simply: "And then there was no more of me, and nothing to see with."
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."