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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/