William Blake’s “The Fly” (36) contrasts the similarities between the lives of a man and a little fly when a chance encounter on a summer’s day causes the narrator to reflect on their respective positions in the world of experience. Blake uses rhetorical questioning, repetition, rhyming, and other poetic devices to convey the unpredictability of life and authority of death, ultimately uniting the man and fly as one in the universal experience.
The poem begins when the narrator, perhaps Blake’s universal man, brushes a little fly away in a thoughtless moment. What follows is a reflection of his careless action which ultimately leads the narrator to ponder his own mortality. The narrator initially questions his place in the world, asking “Am not I a fly like thee?” Blake is suggesting that the man and the fly occupy the same position in the world. Each is significant in their own way, alive in a world of their own making which will cease to exist once they die. This richness of life shared with the untimeliness of death represent the universal human experience common to Blake’s poem. Both man and fly share a Joie de vive, different for both until some unanticipated or accidental event brings it to an end.
Blake makes it clear that man and fly will each perish when “some blind hand Shall brush [his] wing.” The blind hand represents that of God or fate. It is the unknown variable that exists for each person which can become the difference between success and doom. For the fly, it is the man’s thoughtless hand; for the man, it could be any number of circumstances that could lead to his unexpected extinction. Blake uses this to reflect on the relation of thought, life and death in the fourth stanza. Death is marked by the absence (or want) of thought. His contention is that life cannot exist without thought; a person who is alive and unthinking is already dead. By putting emphasis on mortality Blake illustrates the inevitability and unexpectedness of death for man and fly.
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Blake uses a method of development that draws the narrator from a literal action, brushing away the fly, to a reflection about that experience. This technique allows Blake’s audience to understand the narrator’s reflection from a first-hand experience. Blake makes use of rhetorical questioning in the second stanza, drawing parallels between man and fly and establishing their common experiences such as life and death, dancing, drinking and singing.
According to Abrams the most important function of rhetorical questioning is to make an assertion indirectly for persuasive effect (271). “Am not I/ a fly like thee?/ Or art thou/ not a man like me?” These questions the narrator asks put forth a question of similarity between the man and the fly, each occupying a similar position in the world, dancing, singing, drinking and enjoying life to its fullest until their accidental or unpredictable end.
Blake’s rhyming technique follows the pattern A-B-C-B in the first stanza, A-D-E-D, in the second stanza, F-G-C-G, in the third stanza, H-I-J-I, in the fourth stanza and A-A-K-A in the fifth stanza, with the “A” rhyme repeating throughout. The rhyming pattern clearly reinforces the main idea by powerfully repeating of the “A” rhyme in the last stanza. The words “fly-I-die”, which make up the “A” rhyme, strengthen Blake’s message of both the man and fly inevitably dying.
Another important feature of Blake’s poem is used to deal with the relationship between man and the fly that he addresses. As maintained by Abrams, an apostrophe is a direct and explicit address to a human or non-human entity (271). Blake uses the apostrophe to address the fly in the first line of the poem, allowing the reader to understand that they are on the same level and already being equated. Blake also uses repetition to draw parallels between thought as being a part of both life and death. This is done in the fourth stanza by using the word “thought” twice, at first comparing it to life, then to death. Just like the man and the fly are connected through life and death, life and death are connected through thought. For Blake, it is thought that causes a being (in this case the man and fly) to live; or to die in its absence.
Blake uses the chance encounter of man and fly to address the mortality of each. His universal message is that life is fickle, and can be snuffed out at any moment. There is no moment like the present to dance, drink and sing; to live each day to its fullest and enjoy “thy summer’s play”. Blake’s “The Fly” stresses the importance of experiencing and presents it as one of the common ties that make man and fly alike.
Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. Boston: Heinle & Heinle, 1999.
“Rhetorical Figures”, 271.
Blake, William. “The Fly”. In William Blake: Songs of Innocence and Songs of
Experience. New York: Dover Publications, 1992, 36.
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