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"I Heard a Fly Buzz--When I Died 2 Author(s): Michael Lake Source: Poetry for Students. Ed. Mary K. Ruby.

Vol. 5. Detroit: Gale Group, 1999. From Literature Resource Center. Document Type: Critical essay Bookmark: Bookmark this Document Full Text: COPYRIGHT 1999 Gale Research, COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale We who live at the end of the twentieth century in North America have a difficult time understanding the intimate familiarity our ancestors had with death. After antibiotics, disinfectants, and mass vaccinations, not to mention the delicate denial of death and decay fostered by the funeral and cosmetic industries, we often succeed in avoiding a direct confrontation with death until our own, final demise. Any discussion of the details of dying is now deemed "morbid," even antisocial, in a culture that chooses to ignore death and to focus instead upon staying "young" at any cost. This was certainly not the case in Emily Dickinson's America, however. Not only were mortality rates higher and life much less predictable, especially for the young, but the long Christian practice of contemplating death in order to stir up remorse for sin and contempt for the transitory life of this world had also not yet died from American popular culture. In many ways, Emily Dickinson lived within the cusp of two worldviews. The Puritan perspective that had seen God's Providence in all life's situations, whether pleasant or painful, was already losing its grip upon popular consciousness in America, while a secular materialist view that refused to speculate beyond phenomenal surfaces was steadily usurping its place. For her own part, however, Dickinson was extremely uneasy with her ambivalent position. On one hand, her youthful rebellion against the mindless conformity demanded by bourgeois Christianity still raged within her. Moreover, she was curious about and very open to the many scientific discoveries that were overwhelming traditional beliefs during the nineteenth century. But on the other hand, she so greatly feared the extinction of the self and the loss of loved ones she observed in death that she desperately hoped for ultimate immortality. She had struggled hard to adopt Emerson's Romantic Transcendentalism in an attempt to reconcile a belief in a spiritual reality with scientific materialism, but she was too much the Puritan to settle for nice compromises. She opted instead to see the human condition with "double vision." This is why her poems about death (and they are many) seem to contradict one another when read together. In her poem "I Heard a Fly Buzz--When I Died--," we have a wonderful meditation upon death set firmly within Dickinson's cusped point of view. This poem, dramatically exploring a subjective experience of dying, draws upon both orthodox Christian and more recent Romantic sentimentalist conventions of death poetry for its thematic presentation. But the poem's grisly irony exposes the utter estrangement a new "post-Christian" suffers at the prospect of a purely physical world that offers no transcendence or survival of consciousness beyond the grave. The tradition of memento mori, a Latin phrase that literally means "remember you shall die", comes from the Christian Middle Ages. Hamlet's contemplation of death and mortality while peering into the sockets of "poor" Yorik's skull is a memorable example of this custom. But the poet who most closely resembles Emily Dickinson in his poetic obsession with death and loss is John Donne, a figure who also dwelt ambivalently within the cusp of two eras--the late medieval and the early modern. He went so far in stirring up the recollection of his own death

as to sleep in a casket after his conversion in midlife to a deeper Christian commitment and his ordination into the Anglican priesthood. But where Donne's crisis of faith lay in whether he would personally find salvation at the end of a life that had so early turned toward "sin," Dickinson's lay much deeper. She doubted whether God and the human "soul" as an entity of continuing self-awareness really existed at all. Given the depth of her doubt, then, Dickinson's poetically representing death and the experience of dying could never accomplish what the tradition of memento mori was originally intended to do, that is, to bring the meditator to a change of perception and to an affirmation of divine transcendence. Her death poems could only present her most cherished wishes or her most dreaded fears. ... [Dickinson] was too much the Puritan to settle for nice compromises. In The Long Shadow: Emily Dickinson's Tragic Poetry , literary critic Clark Griffith noted that Dickinson's death poems always ask at least one of three questions: "What is death?"; "Why is death?"; and "What is it like to die?" As an answer to this last question, "I Heard a Fly Buzz--When I Died-- "allows us to experience death vicariously through a first-person speaker's reminiscence about the sensations of a death yet to come, a rhetorical device called "prolepsis" (the representation of a future event as though it had already occurred). Of course, the appearance of a buzzing fly in its very first line signals the deep irony of the poem. In violation of the Romantic sentimentalist conventions exemplified in such works as those of the then-popular "death" poet, Lydia Hunt Sigourney, "I Heard a Fly Buzz--When I Died--" actually desecrates the melodramatic sensibility prescribed by that currently popular genre with the intrusion of a buzzing fly into a perfectly composed tableau of the moriens or "dying one" and the assembled grieving loved ones. In fact, viewing the poem as a whole, we see that this "Fly" and its buzzing dominate three of the four stanzas. But Dickinson turns the poem's bitter irony to a more profound purpose than mere satire. Accurately depicting the dimming consciousness and sensual distortions undergone by the dying in compressed and suggestive imagery, this poem is a gem among the many jewels among Dickinson's poetry because of its "slantness"--its oblique but "revelatory" language. From the first line, which presents us with the dramatic situation, to the twelfth, when "There interposed a Fly," the speaker sets the scene leading up to the dramatic event. But all the sensuous descriptions of the sounds in the room and the demeanor of its occupants act as counterpoint to the fly's insistent buzzing. For example, the "Stillness in the Room," the quiet of impending death, forms an island of silence like the quiet "Between the Heaves of Storm" (line 4). Moreover, the word "Heaves," meaning both lifting with an effort and rising and falling rhythmically, conjures up not only the deafening blasts of a violent storm, but also the rhythmic rattling and rasping after breath the dying often suffer during their "throes." In the second stanza, the moriens distinguishes the mourners about her by their body parts and physical sounds, their "Eyes" and "Breaths." Also like the still point in the midst of a storm, the "Eyes around--had wrung them[selves] dry / And Breaths were gathering firm" (lines 5-6). Worn out with weeping, the mourners hold their breaths, both in sympathy with the dying one's struggles and in anticipation of "that last Onset--when the King / Be witnessed--in the Room--" (lines 7-8). The word "Onset," by the way, can signify either a "beginning" of an action or an "attack" by an enemy. But whether the "beginning of the end" or the "final assault" of death, all in the room, in keeping with the conventions of nineteenthcentury sentimentalist death lyrics, expect an "epiphany," a sign of the Divine presence, to signal the departure of the soul into glory.

In anticipation of this grand event, the fictive "I" "willed my Keepsakes--Signed away / What portions of me be / Assignable--" (lines 9-11). One must not fail to detect Dickinson's irony in this passage. Using the language of contract and common law (remember, her father was a lawyer), Dickinson describes the dying one's preparation for her approaching demise in terms of an exchange of property. In my opinion, Dickinson uses this language to ridicule bourgeois acquisitiveness as well as the smugly middle-class conventions of Sigourney's death poetry. A far more orthodox Christian presentation would have shown the moriens relinquishing her passion for "filthy lucre" and treasures that "pass away" rather than making sure that her "Assignable" "portions" are properly disposed of, especially when anticipating the advent of the "King." Nevertheless, no King shows up, for "then it was / There interposed a Fly--." As mentioned above, this buzzing fly dominates the poem, and there has been much critical discussion about its import within the poem. Interestingly, Dickinson had previously used the image of flies buzzing at a window to signify a death. The poem "How Many Times These Low Feet Staggered--" sets the reader a riddle with its line "Buzz the dull flies--on the chamber window--" indicating the negligence of the "Indolent Housewife--in Daisies-- lain!" In other words, the house is in disarray because the woman whose social responsibility it had been to "keep" the house has had the audacity to die. But in the poem at hand, the "disorder" the fly portends has metaphysical ramifications. For example, to "interpose" oneself doesn't just mean to "come between"; it also carries the added signification of to "get in the way." This interposing fly actually obstructs the light coming in from the window. Still, we would be overburdening the metaphor to note that Beelzebub, the "Lord of the Flies," would certainly delight in coming between a dying soul and the "light." Our fly here is much less sinister. After all, its buzz is "uncertain--stumbling" (line 13), paralleling the fragile mortality and failing consciousness of the poem's speaker herself. Besides, the fact that the buzz is "Blue" (an example of "synesthesia," that is, the melding of two sensations into one) usually indicates "eternity" in Dickinson's color palette, although in this case, "extinction" may be its symbolic value. No, the fly stands for the ultimate destiny of all corporeal existence: decay, disintegration, and nothingness. When "the Windows failed--and then / I could not see to see--" (lines 15-16), the speaker leaves the buzzing and the mourners behind in the room and proceeds on to what? Dickinson, of course, leaves the question unanswered in this poem. But that buzzing fly discloses an abyss. If modern materialism is right in its godlessness and the universe is subject to endless cycles of growth, death, and decay, then life has no ultimate transcendent meaning. As much as some critics extol Emily Dickinson as some sort of "protoexistentialist," there is also much in her verse to argue that she was not at all comfortable with nihilism. Behind the irony in her apparent lampoon of the popular death poetry of her day lurks an agonized question. Is death an empty end to a life without metaphysical meaning? In the other poems she wrote about death, she asked different questions and came up with different answers.