Emily Dickinson in her poem #465, covers the subject of death in a way that I have not seen before. She delves right into the last sounds she heard when the narrator died, which was a fly buzzing. The last actions of this world are concluded by the assigning
of “keepsakes”, the last few tears while waiting “the King”. And now, in the midst of this silence, Emily chooses to introduce the buzzing of a fly. This common household pest’s incessant buzz becomes all the dying can hear. The fly is a significant part of the poem and in this essay, I will give examples as to why and how.
I think the fly has special significance in the poem. Beelzebub was often portrayed as a fly: Lord of the Flies, and there is a strange tone about this poem, as though the dying person is a controller, an organizer, a cold person in fact, her last steps towards death were so calculated, The Eyes around-had wrung them dry-/And Breaths were Gathering firm/ for the last Onset-when the King/Be witnessed-in the Room.(ln 5-8). She is waiting for King (God) to come and take her to the after life. She has calculated death, then this pest interposes itself , Between the light and me(ln14) her peaceful transition to heaven was interrupted.
The fly suddenly opens up the possibility that all is not about to proceed as expected, even after death. And the fact that this is also a posthumously written poem, when I died,(ln 1) suggests that there’s some cause for the dying person not to be resting peacefully in heaven. Something went wrong, something interposed between ‘the light’ (a symbol of heaven) and herself. More than anything this poem is about the uninvited in our lives, it also has echoes of ‘the fly in the Vaseline’, the thing that always goes wrong. The death is planned out, the will is taken care of, and then the nasty fly joins her and destroys her peaceful death with its bothersome buzz. That buzz could be the unconfessed sins she hidden from god, but what ever it is, it has a profound affect on her afterlife by leaving her with this incessant buzzing.
The room of the dying is haunted by an uncomfortable, daunting “Silence”. The comparison of this quiet to the “the stillness in the Air between the heaves of storm”(ln4) intensifies the feeling of anticipation for some frightening event. If you are out jogging in the summer and you start to see dark storm clouds looming overhead, there is a panic that comes, you could get caught in the storm. The clouds as beautiful as they may seem while inside, as soon as the storm begins, they let loose their power.
I think the implied author is entering, in imagination; the very moment of death here is darkness itself. Which is why this poem is, for me, so chilling. So many of the poems insist on a life after death, a spiritual reawakening. But this poem ends on a note of obliteration and overwhelming darkness, accompanied only by the sound of the buzzing. The fly is also a symbol of decay and dissolution, and even of disease, and contamination. It’s a brilliant idea, a common household pest, and also a powerful symbol of evil, uninvited and distracting. This image of distraction is particularly noticeable, especially on first reading the poem. Everything’s going so much according to plan it’s as though these people are on a stage reading their script, going through pre-conceived motions. And then suddenly there’s the gatecrasher, the thing outside the script that completely distracts the dying person, and threatens to rob her of her moment of vision…. “And then the Windows failed – and then/ I could not see to see -” (ln 15)
makes it doubly clear that the moment of vision (windows/eyes failing) has been stolen from her and that, in effect, the fly has won by becoming the very last thing the speaker hears, and imagines – I think the fact that she sees it as Blue is not because she can see it but because she is imagining it. The irritation the fly introduces to the scene also becomes her
final experience of life, a perfect example of how something so ordinary, even trivial, can loom so terribly large it can overwhelm and completely blot out the spirituality. I somehow feel that when Emily Dickinson wrote this poem, she was in pessimistic mood, maybe even doubting the faith that normally sustained her. The language in the
poem, though wonderfully precise and startlingly original, seems to me less important for a reader than the message’ of the poem, which can be taken as a wry comment on how everything, even the privacy of death, can be ruined by the commonest thing, or as something as darkly symbolic as a vision of hell itself. It leads us to the unknown but then gently lets us down, refusing to give us the knowledge we want. The narrator, being no longer of this earth, cannot view what is to come through their earthly “windows”.
There is an implied argument that Dickinson wrote with an audience in mind, that she deliberately kept the ending open so as not to alienate her readers. The fact that much of the poem’s power comes from such an open ending is, I believe, almost incidental. The whole point about the next life is that we do not know and cannot know what it is like or even if it exists. And that’s what makes life so interesting. Think how boring it would be if we actually knew all the answers!