Study Guide

I heard a Fly buzz – when I died – Mortality

By Emily Dickinson


I heard a Fly buzz – when I died – (line 1)

Dickinson puts the theme of death right out in front. In this poem, it’s the second thing we hear about. Now, usually, when someone talks about their death in a work of literature, it’s something that hasn’t happened yet. But here, it’s in the past tense. That means that right away, we’re getting a pretty unusual look at the issue of mortality. Our poem’s speaker is already dead, and that automatically puts her in a different world from our own.

For the last Onset – when the King
Be witnessed-in the Room – (lines 7-8)

This is kind of a mysterious description, but the context makes it clearer. There are people gathered around the speaker, and they are calmly waiting for our speaker to pass away. Dickinson’s phrase for that moment of death is "the last Onset." That’s a word we use a lot to describe people getting sick, for example, "the onset of tuberculosis." Here it’s the final struggle, the last spasm of sickness, as the dying woman passes out of this world.

It’s definitely a sad, gloomy moment, but it’s a powerful, amazing moment too. Dickinson wants to draw a line under that special instant of change. So she refers to it as the moment when "the King" appears. This king could be God, or the Devil, or Death himself, but there’s no doubt that he represents a powerful force. In this poem the actual moment of death is mournful and depressing, but also almost a little bit…exciting. Weird, huh? The people watching are sad, but they are also anticipating a very special event. Sorry if we’re starting to sound a little loopy too…Dickinson’s perspective has a way of getting to you, doesn’t it?

I willed my Keepsakes (line 9)

This is an important death moment too. There’s a lot of intense stuff going on in the room. People are crying, the moment of truth is approaching. But there is also sort of boring, trivial stuff to attend to. Our speaker still has to deal with giving away her little things, sorting out her possessions, etc. The speaker goes out of her way to mention this step, when she could just jump to the final moment of death. By including this, Dickinson lets us know that death is scary and powerful, but it’s also just something that happens. The process of dying comes with its own little chores. Death is a big deal, but also just a part of life, like a pesky fly.

And then the Windows failed – and then
I could not see to see – (lines 15-16)

This is the final moment, the actual point of death. The speaker’s eyes close ("the Windows failed") and then all sight is gone. Even the idea of sight has been wiped away. Since this is all happening in the past, our speaker must be somewhere beyond sight. She is a ghost, speaking to us from the darkness. She has told us the story of her last moments on earth, and now she leaves us in the dark too, with just a last mysterious image.

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