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 —

Analysis, meaning and summary of Emily Dickinson's poem I heard a Fly buzz — when I died

41 Comments

  1. Willem Erns says:

    Wow what a richness of interpretation here!
    Some time ago I wrote an essay about this poem that very well may be the most beautiful poem that Miss Dickinson ever wrote. It is about the line: -whatever portion of me be-:

    “When I let my eye wander once more about the poem and I set my mind out to wander about in the dark forest of my life experiences, I come across a little brook that “babbles on the pebbles” of a film that I saw some thirty years ago. A film that had been adapted of a novel by William Golding. This novel had been published in 1954 and the film was released in 1963.
    As I had never read the novel, I started reading it, as soon as the brook had whispered its Kyrie Eleison tune into my ears. No doubt that most of my readers have read this book and know its title: Lord of the Flies. Maybe not all of them though, will know its original working title, but I want to start with the final published title, as that seems to be closest to our theme at hand.
    Lord of the flies, is a literal translation of a Hebrew word: ba-al-z-bub, from ba-al “lord” + z-bhubh “fly.” We know that word from the bible as: Beelzebub, by later Christian writers often taken as another name for “Satan,” though Milton made him one of the fallen angels.
    So it is safe to assume that Dickinson has wanted to portray death as not just a King, but also as a ruler, a lord of evil spirit. Is that all? Does the fly just stand for the evil spirit, or might there be more?
    Yes, there ís more, or rather, there is a better fit with the words in the poem; a more precise match with the central idea in it. I stumbled upon that idea, after I had realized that Golding initially, had given his novel another title than the finally published one. His working title was: The Stranger That Lies Within. Immediately after my realization, I knew there was something very special about this idea of introducing the fly in the poem, but I could not really lay my finger on it. It was only after several days, that one night, I woke up in the middle of it and knew I had found it! (That became a Wild Night with thee, Emily!)
    Could it be, I thought, that the fly stands for a specific part of the person dying? For the part that does not really belong to her? The part of her that has been adapted to other people? (I will use the word Other, with a capital O, to indicate other people in general). The part that does not belong to her real or essential or authentic self, is strange to it and has been distorted so as to make her more sociable; acceptable for society? The part that all of us have internalized in order to be able to live together socially? The part of us that is transferable? The portion of me that be—Assignable … ?
    Well, to ask a closed question is to specify the dimension of the answer. It ís the portion of us, as Golding so aptly showed, that can make us into mass-production-puppets of marching destruction, like in the Second world War. The portion of us that can explain phenomena like fascism; jealousie; envy; hatred and murder. The portion of us that may submit us to a Lord of Flies. A lord that will be witness—and make use—of our weakness.
    Just after the person in the poem has signed away that portion: then it was there … a Fly! As if Miss Dickinson wants to tell us that as soon as our personal death becomes a reality for us, we want to part with that portion and throw it out by projection and lower the blinds, to thus hold back that portion, the fly, forever.
    Our soul does not want anything to do with it anymore, and while it prepares for the new journey out, it … gets trouble seeing … and here I come to the last difficulty in the poem.
    Why does it say: I could not see to see— ? Why for instance, does not it say: I could not look to see, instead, or: I could not watch to see ? Or maybe even: I could not behold to visit, or: I could not sense to understand. Why does it oppose see to see? This question has marvellously puzzled me for quite some time …”

    Anyone here any ideas?

  2. mrttreed says:

    I believe the windows failing is her eyes going shut or her soul leaving the body and loosing use of the eyes…

  3. Amira says:

    I think that the poem is adescrition of the crucial moment between death and life .THus,the fly is asymbol of the flying soul after death as the cropse is decmbosed and the is purifid.

  4. Chris says:

    As the person passes on into the afterlife, surrounded by family members anxiously awaiting the answer of what is on the other side, the dying person is distraced by a fly and passes on without providing any details to the bedside observers.

  5. Sirag says:

    It is true that death and the issue of boundaries are intensified in this poems. And it is true that the difficult part of this poem lies in the way we interpret the appearance of the “Fly” instead of the “King”. But there’s a more important point in my opinion.

    As a poet whose desire was to keep her fascicles for her future readers and she wanted to be acknowledged by us, as she expresses in many of her poems like in F24-J442, she describes herself undergoing the unavoidable experience of death. She is prepared and accepting; she has cut her attachments to the world:

    I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away
    What portion of me be
    Assignable –

    I think that we could find some clues for interpreting these words of declaration. She wanted to leave her poetry for her future readers, that was her only wish and the only thing she had, to transcend through her art, to transcend by the power of her word, and whatever the circumstances of the death are, she will remain eternal.

    Undoubtedly, she fulfilled her role as a woman poet who was concerned with creating an immortal poetry based in her own individuality.

  6. highschoolstudent says:

    Have any of you thought that maybe the fly might mean the devil? In many stories, the devil is called the king of flies. Maybe the fly is representing the devil who stops this dying person from entering the light, or heaven (paradise, whatever you’d like to call it). And this person might just be going through a calm death from old age, not necessarily dying from battle. Also, Christopher, you’re a jerk, for starters. People who post on here not only have lives, but they seem to use their brains more than you. Just because you deem this site and posting on this site “lame” doesn’t mean the people on here are unattractive or have no lives. If you don’t like, then shut up and leave.

  7. Emily says:

    Are you guys seriously arguing over the purpose of this poem?

    (Normally I would not comment over something so useless but I am seriously enraged by this)

    There is nothing to this poem than what it says. You are all over analyzing a simple poem. Emily Dickinson does not need a reason for writing this poem more than to express her own emotions. It does not need to be based off of something like the civil war or “The battle between good and evil”. This is a poem about someone seeing a fly when they die and how though that fly is normally insignificant to someone who lives, since it is the last thing that dieing person is to see, it is the most important thing to them.

    Also, Ryan from Zimbabwe, sorry to sound very criticizing of your opinion, but you obviously do not read into references in poems enough. It’s not about evil and good. It is about life and death. That is the reason for the king (god or death… varies from person to person) being in the room.

  8. Walt says:

    So, I’m guessing that the persona isn’t clear in this poem whether it is a man or a woman..? I’m wondering if the person is dying in a camp during the Civil War. I do agree with the thought that the speaker is experiencing the most basic of his or her senses when hearing the buzzing of the fly. I do believe that this is how Emily Dickinson intended for this part of the poem to be interpreted. The buzzing is clearly the climax of the poem, but it is still hard for me to put into words why the buzzing is so significant. I know that Emily Dickinson had described the buzzing as stammering which I interpret as drunken and careless. I think it is possible that the dying person finds comfort in the fly and its presence makes the transition easier for him or her to die.

  9. Laura says:

    One of the main final messages of this poem is the impending pressure of death, whether it be a literal or symbolic death. Death is foremost a period of transition in which the soul transcends from a living plane and becomes part of something otherworldly and enigmatic. In the wake of the Civil War, the effects of death were an ever-present reality for families across the nation. In this poem, Dickinson asks a question that especially haunted Americans of her time: what do the dying experience as they approach death? The initial experience of the narrator is one of complete stillness and silence; the stillness is like “between the Heaves of Storm” which eludes the idea that the process of dying is like transitioning between the known Storm of life into the unknown Storm of the afterlife. The “Eyes” surrounding the narrator are dry from having stopped mourning and the “Breaths” are gathered as they wait for the narrator to finally succumb to death. Despite the quietness of the scene, the narrator suggests that the room lacks tranquility; rather, the narrator contemplates that every aspect of his life that could be signed away has been relinquished to the living (“Signed away/ What portion of me be/ Assignable –“) so that all that is left is the body that he does not even own enough to control its vitality. The narrator’s death is also a period of anxious waiting for “when the King/ Be witnessed – in the Room –“. It is common to believe that some other-worldly figure must be present to accompany the dying into the afterlife, and as the narrator waits he hears the buzzing of the fly pervade the room.

    Despite everyone’s anticipation of the “King”, the buzzing of the fly is all the narrator senses. However, it appears that the narrator is neither disappointed nor relieved to hear the fly rather, he is fascinated by the fly’s ability to keep the him gripped to life. The poem says that the fly’s “stumbling Buzz” floated “Between the light – and me –“. It is as though throughout the poem the narrator has relinquished his ties to his loved ones, his possessions, and finally his body until everything that exists in his mind and his senses are condensed and represented in the buzzing of the fly. Here, Dickinson implies that the narrator’s identity lies outside of what roles he might have filled or what possessions he owned because when, in the last moments of his life, he is stripped down to the most basic elements of his existence, all he knows is the buzzing of the fly.

    The final lines of the poem say, “And then the Windows failed – and then/ I could not see to see”. The failing windows imply that the light that the narrator was searching for behind the noise of the fly did not meet him in the end. While the final image comes off as rather depressing, it is important to note that the narrator’s sense of hearing was always the key to his identity in death. The sense of hearing is a recurring element in Dickinson’s work and it often represents a more acute level of understanding for the listener. Rather than dying and transcending into darkness, the narrator comes to be defined by the most basic of his senses and transitions into death with a better understanding of his own identity.

  10. Felicia says:

    Emily created this poem to express the way she was feeling about her life at the time. She wrote her poems based on her feelings of her life, herself, and the very fewpeople involved in her life at that certain time.

  11. cristine says:

    Emily Dickinson, was sorounded in her life by the deaths of others, this are the kind of situations that make people question the existance of God and Heaven.She says what portion of me be. To me she is questioning, what will happen to me when I die. Because I could not see the see. I could not see or believe in god.

  12. ea says:

    I think there are great big huge hints, like the fact that she never married or had children. That aside, I feel this is very much about death and about Emily’s existentialism – her doubts about a great beyond. To me this reads like an old b&w film that is cutting out at the end, where you see that hair (or that fly) on the lens of the projector just before the light snaps out. Emily is imagining that there is nothing after that. The fascination in that last moment is that the fly sensed the inevitable, and was there for it, along with the narrator.

    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 —

  13. Az says:

    ‘Died’ is not an actual reference to death. The majority of her poems are based on love, and there are slight hints that she was not loved in return. Death could be an exaggurated description of how she felt at this time.

  14. Desiree says:

    when the narrator wills away her keepsakes she gave her soul to God, her possessions to her loved ones and her body to be devoured by the fly. The reason she could not “see to see” is because She was no longer able to stare down at her dead body because she was going on to heaven and it would be foul to watch herself be eaten by a hungrey stumbling fly!

  15. ramy says:

    i think that dickinson choosed the word FLY as the only aspect of life , because when someone die there is a worms in his body this worms eat his body then it change to another thing which is the FLY ( the PLUE FLY ) which existed in graves .
    FLY is areference to death and life at the same time , it is a fly moving and flying it is indication to life . It is a mark for death as it only found near dead bodyes and graves. THAT IS WAT I THINK ABOUT….FLY…. , RAMY ,EGYPT

  16. Andrzej Samulak says:

    Emily Dickinson’s viewpoint of the problem of death and dying is quite unusual. The juxtaposition of the two elements – the time of dying and buzzing of the fly – so trivial in the situation of death – create the effect of grotesque. Buzzing symbolises the whole world that continues to exist, no matter what happens to the individual.

  17. Michael Brady says:

    I find this poem stunningly immediate. It speaks in the first person, but is clearly a curious, careful investigation by an onlooker, watching and meditating on the process of dying and in many ways the meaning of life.

    There is an eye of the storm sort of srillness in the room, and at the same time, the stillness between the heaves of storm echoes the quietness, the “is she dead yet” moments between the last gasps of breath.

    All in the room have cried as much as they can. Their breaths are bated, (gathered firm), and they are expecting the King. The King, maybe Christ, maybe death, maybe God….I imagine fromwhat I have gleaned of Emily Dickinson that the King is some combination of Death and Immortality…a form of wonder and awe, with no particular answer intended.

    The dying person has willed away keepsakes and signed away what portion of me be assignable. I love the understatement in that. Just what portion of me is assignable. The keepsakes I guess…what else can she own. I feel there is a joke there, one that hinges on the majesty of the moment of the death and loss of the body, and the understanding that said body is not even assignable by its owner.

    Dickinson is not glorifying death. In fact, at the moment when that King might be witnessed in the room, in there comes a Fly. (The real King, I believe) Not the carrion sucking maggot that one might imagine, (at least not that I believe), but a Fly. Remember her poem from the Fly to the Bee, the fly expecting him (the bee) soon since summer’s on the way? This Fly is a wonderful positive thing. The dying person sees a fly, with blue, uncertain stumbling… And then her sight fails, but in the room there is life. I could draw so many conclusions, but all I want to say is that I think this is a poem of huge intellectual grasp, and marvellous emotional peace. Emily Dickinson leads me always as far as I can go, and I know, when I can go farther, she will be there to meet me.

  18. Amanda says:

    There have been several interpretations presented so far throughout these comments, and I don’t have anything original, unfortunately. I think it’s clear that the person telling the story of her death has known for some time that she will be dying. “I willed my keepsakes, signed away / What portion of me I / Could make assignable” The rest of it is up to the interpretation of the reader. I interpreted the stillness she talks about in the second line as the precise moment she stopped living. At this moment, she is (ideally) supposed to cross over to eternal life with God in heaven. She sees the light, but then she sees this fly was suddenly “interposed” between “the light and [her].” As a few people have already commented, Beelzebub is known as the lord of the flies and bible references associate him with the devil. I interpreted the appearance of the fly as her not being pure enough to make it to heaven. Instead, the fly (a symbol for the devil) found her on her deathbed and took her soul with him into the darkness (“and then / I could not see”). It seems that whatever sin she had committed that condemned her to hell was relatively insignificant because she was able to see the light before she sunk into darkness. I think God was willing to forgiver her and receive her in heaven, but since she was a sinner and technically belonged to the devil, he greedily snatched her soul before she was able to enter heaven. I’m not positive on this, but I think Emily Dickinson was not really committed to a religion and was very curious about the possibility of heaven and hell, and I think she expressed this in her work. Another poem of similar content is “Because I Could not Stop for Death.” It, too, is about dying and the afterlife.

  19. Elizabeth says:

    This poem was around the time when it was common to believe in seeing visions of God or Christ when at death. but instead of seeing God, the speaker only sees a fly, which is a household pest and therefore is negative. so maybe this poem could also be about expectations?

  20. SWH says:

    I don’t see how this poem shows that she challenges the idea of the existence of God, Rachel.

    I appreciate how Dickinson used the 1st person narration to bring the reader the feel of the poem, as if the reader him/herself is dying.

    Whether it is literal or not, to me, doesn’t matter, the point is to enjoy it, since everyone’s view of art might be slightly different, there is no correct way of interpreting any poem.

    As to how Dickinson would have interpreted the poem…only she herself knows!

  21. Dan says:

    I think Mary Gunderson said it BEST! I love it – I’ve always just had the simplified view of the fly interfering with the dying “Emily” not being able to see the “King” but her statement really opens my eyes. Thank you, Mary!

  22. Daniel says:

    The fly represents the presence of death. THe buzz is the constant annoyance of how death is near by. She some how knows she will die. The eyes wrung dry means that everyone has mourned more than enough tears for her. and she is waiting for the “king” god to appear when she dies. You can see this because the Last- last breath, onset- beginning- beginning of new life with god. she has willed her keepsakes- basically signed everything of value to people around her. The fly suddenly appears- death is closer, it is between the light and me- the fly is waiting for her to follow the “light” and the windows failed- the storm had its last heave and her vision was depleted for she died then and there.

  23. Jill says:

    I agree that she is definately literally talking about death in this poem, and she says somethign about giving away what she owned, and i think she was kind of talking about her will, and giving the things she owned away before she died. As for the fly, i believe that is what separated her from heaven..and the room was quiet except for the buzzing, because the fly was the thing that was the doubt on whether she could be pure enough to go to heaven or not. I don’t know is this is actually what she means, but it is just a thought.

  24. Jay says:

    Conal, if you are going to copy and paste please give credit to the author.

  25. Mary Gunderson says:

    I heard a fly the buzz is not really questioning what happens at death nor does it question whether there is eternal life after death. The facts of nature show that the body does decay after death; therefore, Ms. Dickinson uses the fly. The spiritual being no longer needs the human body so there is no conflict. I think this is simply a reflection on the death process and customs associated with death of the physical body.

  26. red hairy says:

    I think the verse about the “waiting for the king” is rather meant to be ironic because all the people around her want to witness God in the moment of death, but all what they see and hear is a fly.
    It is also rather sad because the relatioves have not come to support the dying person but for egoistic reasons to make a spiritual experience.
    Thus, I think, Dickinson deconstructs the whole image of relatives waiting at a death bed. They are not there because of their love to the dying person but to fulfil their own desires. however, this is denied to them. Instead of God they see an ordinary fly.

  27. gloria says:

    Wow! This is a really deep conversation, but I don’t think this poem is really about literal death. I felt that the poem was really a sustained metaphor between marriage and death. The fly is a warning of what is to come. The King is going to be her husband. The giving away of keepsakes is a dowery or marriage presents.

  28. Derek says:

    There is metaphor and then there is murkiness. If 465 weren’t Emily Dickinson’s it would be invisible.

  29. Alan Crawford says:

    it really does

  30. Rachel says:

    I like this poem very much !It conveys the author’s idea clearly in a very few sentences___that is her doubt wether there exists a God !Wonderfull !She is much ahead of her time !

  31. Suzann says:

    The current comments are interesting. I read this poem in an entirely different light.
    To me it is beautiful and pensive. I have often heard that the hearing is the last to “go” when we fall asleep.
    Hearing a fly buzz was the last sound she heard. What could be the meaning of this small insignifiacnt symbol of life, that it was the last thing she recognized? And life goes on…and maybe it is the little things we do in life that really are most important afterall.

  32. nikki says:

    Okay, in regard to the fly being the devil, i agree. actually the translation of the word “Beelzebub” is lord of the flies, however, beelzebub in the bible is the devil. Flies are commonly used as evil beings in some literature. also, i thougt maybe what she is trying to say is even the smallest sin can send you to hell. The fly is small and you wouldn’t think a fly could stop you from going to heaven just as you wouldn’t think a small sin would. Just a Thought!!

  33. RT says:

    When it says “there interposed a Fly” and one line down it says “Between the light –and me– An then the Window failed–and then I could not see to see–” It made me think that the fly held her back from going to heaven “between the light”. So the king(Christ/God) did come to take her away to heaven I think. So the fly was maybe the devil in my opinion and did not let her go, but instead brought her down into darnkess “I could not see to see” I could be very wrong but that kidna cought my eye.

  34. Danielle says:

    beautifully ironic and dark

  35. Rosalia says:

    I think that she imagines as a fly a the re-incarnation. in the quotes “The eyes around – had wrung them dry-” “For that last Onset – when the King” may the people are in the room waiting for the king (death).

  36. Barnaby Lancaster says:

    Emily Dickenson was tripping on acid

  37. Leungo88 says:

    This was a rather grim poem. I feel the message in this poem is that there is no “afterlife” after death. The “King” never comes instead the dead person sees the fly which becomes a symbol for decay. Perhaps that is all there is to our deaths, we will all rot away into nothingless by the fly…

  38. Dametria Anderson LSH says:

    I thought this was a very touching poem it screams it screams it screams be thankful that you lived to se another day charish your family members while you got them because once death comed aint no stoppin um. they are just going to take you away i often wonder what are the last things i would hear when i am on my death bed.Will it be in my sleep or the pain will i fill?I often wonder. I lOVE POETRY

  39. Shalitha says:

    it was sad, it was a sad poem. it made me cry it was a sad poem

  40. Sydeny Hamlet says:

    your poem is very intersting to read how most people feel when they are alone and think there isnt anything better to do in life but stay there and die

  41. conal says:

    The death in this poem is painless, yet the vision of death it presents is horrifying, even gruesome. The appearance of an ordinary, insignificant fly at the climax of a life at first merely startles and disconcerts us. But by the end of the poem, the fly has acquired dreadful meaning. Clearly, the central image is the fly. It makes a literal appearance in three of the four stanzas and is what the speaker experiences in dying.

    The room is silent except for the fly. The poem describes a lull between “heaves,” suggesting that upheaval preceded this moment and that more upheaval will follow. It is a moment of expectation, of waiting. There is “stillness in the air,” and the watchers of her dying are silent. And still the only sound is the fly’s buzzing. The speaker’s tone is calm, even flat; her narrative is concise and factual.

    The people witnessing the death have exhausted their grief (their eyes are “wrung dry” of tears). Her breathing indicates that “that last onset” or death is about to happen. “Last onset” is an oxymoron; “onset” means a beginning, and “last” means an end. For Christians, death is the beginning of eternal life. Death brings revelation, when God or the nature of eternity becomes known. This is why “the king / Be witnessed in his power.” The king may be God, Christ, or death; think about which reading you prefer and why.

    She is ready to die; she has cut her attachments to this world (given away “my keepsakes”) and anticipates death and its revelation. Are the witnesses also waiting for a revelation through her death? Ironically the fly, not the hoped-for king of might and glory, appears. The crux of this poem lies in the way you interpret this discrepancy. Since the king is expected and the fly appears, are they to be associated? If the fly indicates the meaning of death, what is that meaning?

    Does the fly suggest any realities of death–smell, decay? Flies do, after all, feed on carrion (dead flesh). Does this association suggest anything about the dying woman’s vision of death? or the observers’ vision? Is she– are they–seeing the future as physical decay only? Does the fly’s fulfilling their expectations indicate that death has no spiritual significance, that there is no eternity or immortality for us? There are other interpretations of the fly. The fly may stand for Beelzebub, who is also known as lord of the flies. Sometimes Beelzebub is used as another name for Satan; sometimes it refers to any devil; in Milton’s Paradise Lost, Beelzebub is Satan’s chief lieutenant in hell. If the King whom the observers and/or the speaker is waiting for turns out to be the devil, is there still irony? How is the meaning of the poem affected by this reading? For example, does the poem become more cheerful? What would Dickinson be saying about eternity? Can the poem support more than one of these interpretations of the fly?

    What is the effect of the fly being the only sign of life (“buzz”) at the end of the poem? To extend this question, is it significant that the only sign of vitality and aliveness in the entire poem is the fly?

    For literal-minded readers, a dead narrator speaking about her death presents a problem, perhaps an unsurmountable problem. How can a dead woman be speaking? Less literal readers may face appalling possibilities. If the dead woman can still speak, does this mean that dying is perpetual and continuous? Or is immortality a state of consciousness in an eternal present?

    “I heard a fly buzz when I died” is one of Emily Dickinson’s finest opening lines. It effectively juxtaposes the trivial and the momentous; the movement from one to the other is so swift and so understated and the meaning so significant that the effect is like a blow to an emotional solar plexus (solar plexus: pit of the stomach). Some readers find it misleading because the first clause (“I heard a fly buzz”) does not prepare for the second clause (“when I died”). Is the dying woman or are the witnesses misled about death? does the line parallel their experience and so the meaning of the poem?

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