So, if you’ve heard about Emily Dickinson, you’ve probably heard that she lived kind of a weird life. She’s famous for not leaving her house much over the 50+ years of her life. She took a trip or two, went to college briefly, but mostly she stayed inside her home and wrote letters and poems. A lot of poems. 1775 of them. For the most part, these poems were found after Dickinson’s death, tied up together in little packages called "fascicles" (sounds like "icicles," but probably not so pointy). The reclusive Dickinson is a hard image to get out of your head, but it may limit our idea of who this poet really was.
Not leaving the house didn’t completely prevent her from interacting with the world. For one thing, she was a serious and sensitive reader. In "I Heard A Fly Buzz When I Died," Dickinson shows that she knew a lot about poetic style and technique. She used rhyme and meter in careful and interesting ways, which lets us know that she had studied other poems. We can also tell that she knew a lot about literary style and genres. In many ways, "I Heard A Fly Buzz" is a reaction to the kinds of sentimental literature that was popular in the mid-19th century. Even in a short poem like this, it's apparent that Dickinson was more than capable of digesting, responding to, and maybe even making fun of other works of literature. That’s part of the fun of Dickinson.
Imagine Emily Dickinson, living a quiet life in Massachusetts in the 1800s. Can you see the room she spent all that time in? Maybe there are some pretty lace curtains and some sturdy, nice-looking furniture. Maybe there’s a view of the woods.
What sort of poems do you think a woman at that time and in that place might be encouraged to write? Maybe quiet little nature poems, with happy, friendly images? Maybe sappy love poems? Not Emily Dickinson. Her poems are full of weird, sharp, crazy images. They are bursting at the seams with emotion, all about death, madness, passion, and the weird things that go on in our minds. They are smart and often funny in a dark, slightly twisted way.
Take "I Heard A Fly Buzz When I Died," for example. A lot of writers in Dickinson’s time had a very sentimental take on death and dying. Everything had to be sweet and calm and sappy. Often their works were saturated with religious imagery. (For a really over-the-top version of this, check out the death of little Eva in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe). But in this poem, Dickinson played with those ideas and uses them for her own purposes. The poem starts out as the sort of writing that people would expect, and then phrases and images are introduced that turn it into a kind of nightmare.
The fly, especially, is a sinister and spooky touch. Dropping something as weird as a fly into this poem changes everything. It almost becomes more of a horror story than a comforting poem about the end of life. This poem starts out on a quiet, lonely, sad note that is just as moving as the gross material about the fly. Whatever Dickinson did, she did it her way. This fierce, unique take on a subject is what we love about Emily Dickinson. She pushed conventional ideas and images aside, and wrote the kind of poetry that still seems fresh and original today. Give her a try – we bet you’ll get hooked too.