Study Guide

I heard a Fly buzz – when I died – Family

By Emily Dickinson


The Eyes around – had wrung them dry – (line 5)

We get just a little touch of information about the other people in the room. We know that they have been crying, but now they have stopped. Their eyes are dry, but we know it’s been a painful process. Dickinson tells us these eyes are "wrung" dry. When you wring out a sponge or wring someone’s neck, you are twisting it hard, squeezing it painfully. The people who own these eyes have suffered with our speaker. They have felt the heaves of sickness, and their breath has been ragged. We can’t say if they are her parents and bothers and sisters, but they are definitely people who love her. The idea of a watching circle of family and/or friends is a key part of this scene. It sets the tone in the room, and helps us to visualize this sad moment.

I willed my Keepsakes (line 9)

The idea of making a will, of formally giving away your possessions, is a big part of how we die. By slipping this idea in here, Dickinson calls up all of the legal and social obligations that go with dying. Leaving wills is meant to strengthen the bonds of family. It’s a final message to the people you care about. The family is here in this poem in the literal sense. At the same time, the family is also here as an idea, a set of people that you are responsible to, and who you think of and try to help even when you are dying. Sorry if this is getting kind of grim. To lighten the mood, we thought about making a category called "People with stupid hats" or "Cuddly kittens." Unfortunately, Emily didn’t serve up much of either one in this poem, so we’re stuck with dead people and their families.

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