The death in Emily Dickinson’s poem “I heard a Fly buzz when I died” is painless but striking. The appearance of the fly is startling at first because it is unexpected. The setting of the poem is the speaker’s death bed, what is an ordinary fly doing there? Obviously, the speaker is waiting to die, she (if I may give the speaker a gender) has “willed my Keepsakes-Signed away What portion of me be Assignable-“. [lines 9-11] She appears to have accepted her death but is waiting for something amazing to happen. The room is quiet but with a sense of anticipation “The Stillness in the Room Was like the Stillness in the Air-Between the Heaves of Storm-“. There is a peaceful atmosphere yet death is the storm to come. The reader senses that the speaker and mourners are expecting some spectacular event at the moment of her death. “The Eyes around-had wrung them dry-And Breaths were gathering firm For that last Onset-when the King Be witnessed-in the Room-“. [lines 5-8]
This stanza suggests that the mourners have ceased crying and were now waiting to witness something incredible when the speaker dies. “Last onset” is an oxymoron; “onset” means a beginning, and “last” means an end. For Christians, death is the beginning of eternal life, death brings revelation when God or the nature of eternity becomes known. The “King” could be a reference to God, perhaps they are expecting the hand of God to reach down and spirit her away to Heaven. This suspense-filled moment is interrupted by a buzzing fly who seems to be unaware of the grim situation. The fly is doing what a fly does, unaffected by the speaker’s death. We consider the fly to be inconsequential, while the fly does not think about us at all. Its life does not stop because the speaker was dying, in fact, the fly does not even notice. The speaker and mourners see the fly and believe that it has caused them to miss the moment of her death when in actuality there was nothing to see. There is no large flash of light or supernatural event, just the simple buzzing of a fly.
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The speaker says “There interposed a fly-With Blue-uncertain, stumbling Buzz-Between the light-and me-And then the Windows failed-and then I could not see to see.” [lines 12-16] While she and the mourners were waiting for some miraculous occurrence this fly distracted them and they missed the moment of her death. But they didn’t realize that in the end there was nothing to see. Our death is natural, we die just like every other living being on the planet. It is the one moment where we return to nature and are no better or worse than the rest of the animals. This reinforces that death, even the death of a human, is a simple passing. Nature accepts the dead and continues, as it has done from the beginning of time. The central image in this poem is not the speaker, whose death we are witnessing, but the fly. The presence of the fly symbolizes nature and affirms that each death is of equal significance in the eyes of the earth.
Emily Dickinson’s portrayal of Death in “Because I could not stop for Death” is that of a gentleman caller. She personifies Death as a guide, leading her on a journey through life, each passing scene represents a different stage. “We passed the School, where Children strove At Recess-in the Ring” [lines 9-12] depicts childhood, “We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain-” portrays maturity, and “We passed the Setting Sun-Or rather-He passed Us-” represents the grave. The ride reflects the natural progression of the speaker’s life in an unthreatening manner. The speaker does not seem to fear Death, she accepts his invitation with no dismay or trepidation. “Because I could not stop for Death-He kindly stopped for me-” shows how Death appears to have done the speaker a favour.
It also describes Death as kind instead of ghastly or hideous, the way we normally think of him. “The Carriage held but just Ourselves And Immortality” is a telling line. The capitalization of immortality and the fact that it has its own line in the first stanza emphasizes the importance of the third passenger. It indicates the immortality of death, that death is the one thing that is eternal. The carriage ride is slow, giving the speaker ample time to adjust to her death. After passing the children, the fields of grain, and the setting sun, the carriage passes a house. “We slowly drove-He knew no haste
And I had put away My labor and my leisure too, For His Civility-“. [lines 5-8] The speaker envisions Death as a person she trusted or believed that she could trust. Clearly, there has been no deception on his part. They drive in a leisurely manner, and she feels completely at ease. She is therefore quite willing to put aside her work. “We paused before a House that seemed A swelling of the Ground-The Roof was scarcely visible-The Cornice-in the Ground-” [lines 17-20] The description of the house that seemed to protrude out of the ground, the roof “scarcely visible”, brings to mind a grave sinking into the earth. The last stanza suggests the speaker is remembering the ride centuries later. “Since then-‘t is centuries-and yet Feels shorter than the Day I first surmised the Horses’ Heads Were toward Eternity.” [lines 21-24]
She recalls the drive-in vivid detail although it occurred long ago. The moment she realized the horses were carrying her toward “eternity” is fresh in her mind as if it happened yesterday. This stanza displays an atmosphere of timelessness, the eternity of death. There is a supernatural quality to the fourth stanza, especially the last three lines. “The Dews drew quivering and chill-For only Gossamer, my Gown-My Tippet-only Tulle-“. [lines 16-18] The speaker shivers as she is chilled by the “Dew”, her “Gown” and “Tippet” (a cape) are made of “Gossamer” (a cobweb) and “Tulle”. Tulle is a fine net usually used for veils and is transparent, which conveys an ethereal quality. In this stanza it begins to get cold, reflecting the passing from life into death. This poem portrays death as something not to fear, as another journey.
“I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” is about another kind of death, the death of the mind or soul. It’s a record of a mental collapse, told after it’s happened, it traces the speaker’s descent into madness. The speaker uses a funeral as a metaphor for the part of her that is dying. “And Mourners to and fro Kept treading-treading-till it seemed That Sense was breaking through-“. [lines 2-4] The mourners represent the agitation the speaker feels, the constant pacing of thoughts back and forth in her mind. The last line makes it possible to think that the frenzied thoughts in her head were eventually beginning to make sense.
In the second stanza, the drum replaces the monotonous tone of the mourners, driving the speaker further toward the edge of insanity. “And when they all were seated, A Service, like a Drum-Kept beating-beating-till I thought My Mind was going numb-“. [lines 5-8] The speaker has begun to feel deadened here by the repetitive beat of the drum. But as we move into the third stanza something revives her mind into action again. “And then I heard them lift a Box And creak across my Soul With those same Boots of Lead, again, Then Space-began to toll,”. [lines 9-12]
Perhaps the sound of her mind’s coffin being lifted to be put in the grave woke the speaker out of her trance. She begins to return to the frantic desperation of ideas racing around her head, which along with the “Boots of Lead” appear to be weighing her down. The fourth stanza continues the poem’s building of tension, “As all the Heavens were a Bell, And Being, but an Ear, And I, and Silence, some strange Race Wrecked, solitary, here-“. [lines 13-16] Whatever the speaker means by “Being,” she does not include herself in that category, for she & “Silence, some strange Race” are “Wrecked, solitary, here”. That line suggests a shipwreck, making one think of 2 sailors lost on a deserted isle.
Through stanzas, one to 4 the speaker has moved from the claustrophobic environment of the funeral to the immeasurable environment of sound. “And then a Plank in Reason, broke, And I dropped down, and down-And hit a World, at every plunge, And Finished knowing-then-“. [lines 17-20] In the fifth stanza the speaker uses the metaphor of standing on a plank or board over a precipice, to describe her descent into insanity. She falls past “worlds,” losing her connections to reality. This is the final stop on the speaker’s road to madness, her mind has completely snapped. This poem describes a person’s journey through a mental breakdown. The speaker is both observer of the funeral and a participant, indicating that the Self is divided, by the end of the poem, the Self has shattered into pieces.
These three poems have one obvious theme in common, death. “I heard a Fly buzz when I died” examines the nature of death, what people expect to encounter when they die. Human beings believe we are special, superior to the other animals and that our deaths should be treated with more reverence. We forget that humans are animals and we are all a part of the same family. Our deaths are no more or less significant than the other animals. Death is natural. “Because I could not stop for Death” teaches us that death is not to be feared, it is not an end to life but the beginning of a new journey. Death should not be sought after but neither should it be something to afraid of. In “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain”, is a little different. While it portrays a person’s mental collapse, it also shows that the death of the mind or sanity is nothing to fear. Once you pass that breakdown, get through the madness, your mind is free. Only by giving in to it can you truly be sane.
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