The Tone and Mood in “I Heard a Fly Buzz–When I Died“
Dickinson writes this poem from a perspective after she has died. She is describing the experience of dying, the final aesthesis before the exact moment of death. The speaker is both observer and participant, which means the Self is divided. The poem shows her own sight of death- a common yet indescribable mystery of human experience. She imaginatively explores the mystery. The tone is very calm. This coolness of the speaker who is dying helps the readers understand the level of acceptance of her own fate. Furthermore, the tone is quite a robotic narration, the kind that one would expect from a dead person, with no emotion.
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Flies are creatures that eat carrions. It is an ironic and cruel admonisher of the fate of a dead person’s body after he or she has died, which is a contrast of the traditional Christian belief about the holiness of life and death. Angels or God himself don’t come to take the soul of the her after the death, instead, a mere fly comes, and then the whole feeling changes and leaves total darkness and oblivion to the readers.
In the first stanza, Dickinson tells us that she is in the room, which is silent and the most important element of the poem, the dead scene, waiting for her death. The poem describes the tranquility between “heaves,” suggesting that upheaval has happened in this moment and that more upheaval will follow. It is a moment of anticipation, of waiting. The air is still, and the witnesses of her death are silent, yet the fly is buzzing. The speaker’s tone is tranquil, even flat. Her narration is concise and factual. She repeats the word “Stillness” twice with both capitalized, which shows how strong that emotion is. However, in this stillness she heard a buzz of a fly, which interrupts the calmness n apparently annoys her. That is why she says “I heard a Fly buzz – when I died”, to express the interruption of her certainty of death.
In the second stanza, we are still in the room, but the speaker leaves the fly behind and talks about the people witnessing the death during her last moment. Her breathing shows that “that last onset” is about to happen. “Last onset” is an oxymoron, while “onset” means a beginning, and “last” means an end. The people around her are now stop crying and are calmly preparing for her death. It shows everything is ready and she is now going to unite with the “King” in heaven. We can still see that although this is her last moment, there is no fear or sadness in this atmosphere. On the other hand, except for her inner calmness, the people around her are quiet and calm too, other than weeping and crying. This strengthens the “stillness” in the first stanza.
The third and forth stanzas are an introduction of the fly. In the third stanza, when the speaker knows she is now ready and is giving away her wills and heritage, without any trace of sorrow and fear, the fly — a reappear intruder, a weird, unnecessary, and gross little bug — breaks in her calmness again. This sudden interruption of the fly damages the peaceful image of this poem unexpectedly. Although the fly doesn’t appear in most of the poem, it comes back in a big way. The speaker uses the word “interposed”, which changes everything and makes the atmosphere much less comfortable.
In the forth stanza, it is the first time that the speaker describes the fly in details. She uses words “Blue – uncertain – stumbling buzz” to show the image of it. It gives readers a stronger image of the colors and movements that go along with that annoying sound. Dickinson doesn’t write a sentence to describe the fly, on the contrary, she only drops a few words, and we begin to build a picture in our minds. Also, the word “uncertain” is definitely a completely opposite image of her willingness towards her death. When flies, which eat dead bodies, are associated with decay and death, this “intruder’s” interruption of the speaker’s progress toward the comforting of the light is evil. And right when the fly “interposes” between the light and her, she closes her eyes and dies, in other words, the moment when she dies, she does not die comfortably, which is out of expectation of the stillness in this poem. Although death is expected, the actual moment of death happens suddenly. Also, when read the poem as a whole, the eyesight has been narrowing, closing and centralizing on the fly throughout the whole incident.
Every line in this poem is written in perfect iambic meter. They are divided into two syllable chunks, while emphasizing on the second syllable. The length of the stanzas and the lines are also regular. There are four stanzas each with four lines. The first and the third lines in each stanza have eight syllables. The second and fourth lines each have six syllables. Dickinson gave this poem a smooth, rhythmic feel. Rhyme also plays a significant role in this poem. The first stanzas have no apparent rhyme, until the last stanza that we see a rhyme pattern of ABCB, which indicates that true rhyme comes with true death. The rhyme finalizes the death in a way that making it a major part of the poem by putting emphasis on it.
Dickinson also uses a lot of hyphens, which seems randomly put in but in fact it is another important strategy. A dying person gasping for breath that have abrupt pauses in their speech. The way they force you to pause again and again, even in weird places, gives readers the sense of slow, certain anticipation. These lines represent those abrupt pauses, causing readers to read the poem much as the speaker herself would.
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The overall atmosphere in this poem is quiet, calm and peaceful, though, except when the fly interrupts the speaker’s waiting of death. When the sound of the fly fades, the vita of the speaker also fades, until the poem’s final moment of silence. It is very different from the stereotype feeling when people talk or write about death. In this poem, the death is painless, yet the vision of death is horrifying. At the beginning, the insignificant fly merely startles and disconcerts us. But at the end of the poem, the fly assumes dreadful meaning. Obviously the central image is the fly. It expresses the mood and experiences in the speaker’s death. Although the tone is calm, the mood is somber and sad, as the fly apparently interrupts her anticipation of a peaceful death.
In conclusion, this poem represents the nature of death, what everyone has to encounter when they die. However, most of us believe we, human beings are special, superior to the other animals and that our deaths should be treated with more honor, while the fact is that human beings are animals, too. Our deaths are no more or less significant than the others. Death is natural. This poem represents the obscure feeling within Emily Dickinson. She could simply write a poem about seeing herself going to heaven, but she didn’t consider death was as honorable as many would think and in the end she “could not see to see”
1. “I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died.” I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died. Web. 11 Mar. 2015. <http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/cs6/fly.html>.
2. “On 465 (“I Heard a Fly Buzz–when I Died”).” On 465 (“I Heard a Fly Buzz–when I Died”). Web. 11 Mar. 2015. <http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/a_f/dickinson/465.htm>
4. Shmoop Editorial Team. “I Heard a Fly Buzz – When I Died –.” Shmoop.com. Shmoop University, Inc., 11 Nov. 2008. Web. 11 Mar. 2015. <http://www.shmoop.com/i-heard-a-fly-buzz-when-i-died/>.
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