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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.