Study Guide

I heard a Fly buzz – when I died – Stanza I

By Emily Dickinson

Stanza I

Line 1

I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –

  • Check out how fast this poem gets going, and how much Dickinson can do in the first line.
  • She starts out with what sounds like a pretty boring observation. OK, so you heard a fly buzz. But then there’s one of Dickinson’s famous dashes, and the other shoe drops: "when I died."
  • Just three words, and she almost makes them sound like an afterthought. It’s as if she was saying, "I heard a fly buzz – and then I squashed it." But those three words make all the difference.
  • Suddenly this is a ghost story, and we realize that the speaker of this poem is dead and telling us about this fly from beyond the grave.
  • The associations between flies and death are gross and spooky too. She’s letting us know that this isn’t going to be some peaceful little nature poem about a fly.
  • Be sure to keep an eye on those dashes as the poem goes on. A lot of people have tried to edit them out of Dickinson’s work. What would this line be like if we didn’t have those pauses in the middle and at the end?

Lines 2-4

The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air –
Between the Heaves of Storm –

  • Then, all of a sudden, we move away from the fly, and the speaker starts to tell us a little bit more about the scene of her death.
  • What she sets up for us in these few lines is the atmosphere of the room. She really wants us to feel how heavy and quiet and almost thick the air in the room feels. The lack of sound in the room is the exact opposite of the harsh, annoying buzz of the fly.
  • She emphasizes this with a simile, comparing the stillness of the room to the stillness during a lull in a storm.
  • Have you ever sat through a thunderstorm, and felt how wet, warm and stifling the air gets when things quiet down all of a sudden? Or think about the eye of a hurricane, that weird, silent, eerie moment that comes just before the other half of the storm roars through.
  • So yeah, things are quiet, but they are also packed with energy. Something has just happened, and something is going to happen again.
  • We are in a lull, between the "heaves." What are those heaves that happened in this room? She leaves that up to us.
  • They might be the rush and bustle of life followed by the mysterious journey of death. Or they might be the literal heaves of a dying person, as their body goes through the final spasms of life.