Emily Dickinson’s obsession with death has puzzled scholars for many decades. If a reader wanted to, he could put every one of Emily Dickinson’s nearly 2,000 poems and letters (so many that later, they were assigned numbers for easier organization) into 4 categories: Love, death, pain and the self. The poems about death are the most captivating and puzzling, “The poems that issue from this spiritual exercise are among her most impressive,” (Cunningham 45).
In order to understand some of the feelings Dickinson expresses and to learn how the way she chose to live her life affected her unique poetic style, it is important to look at her life before she began to write and the atmosphere she grew up in. Born December 10, 1830 in the quiet village of Amhearst in the Connecticut valley of Massachusetts in New England, Dickinson lived a quiet, unrecognized life. She lived in a brick mansion located on Main Street with her well known family (who later showed to influence her mark on present-day American poetry).
Dickinson’s father, Edward, served his town in a number of ways. He served as the treasurer of Amhearst College (their grandfather had helped establish the college) and being a lawyer, he helped various Amhearst citizens in their legal matters. He also served in the General Court of Massachusetts, the State Senate and the United States House of Representatives. Edward Dickinson dominated the household, “his heart was pure and terribleI think no other like it exists”, Dickinson wrote after his death,(Rupp 98).
Her mother, Emily Norcross Dickinson, and Edward had raised Dickinson to be a cultured Christian woman, they wanted their daughter to be capable to run a family of her own some day. Her mother did not play a very powerful role in her life. Dickinson had a younger sister, Lavina, who seemed to serve as a type of watchdog for her shy, sensitive and sometimes rebellious sister, and an older brother Austin who followed in his fathers shadow and eventually became a lawyer. Austin also married Dickinson’s best friend, Susan Huntington Gilbert, making her Dickinson’s sister-in-law.
Austin and Susan lived next door and grew to be very close to Dickinson. While in her early twenties, after two years of college, Dickinson began to write sketches of poems on the backs of recipes and used envelopes. By 1858, she started to copy her poems in ink and was gathering them in little packets loosely bound by thread. Dickinson only considered publication once in 1862 when she sent four poems to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, a rising young man of letters, and attached a note asking if “her verse was alive”, (Rupp 45).
His response must have discouraged her and she never made any more attempts to publish anything. Instead, she sent her works to friends in the form of letters. These letters perplexed all of the recipients on account of their morbid connotations and the gloomy feeling they gave to the reader. Only after she died was she ever recognized as a talented poet, “She concentrated on the very essence of what she was and felt in phrases that strike and penetrate like bullets, and with and originality of thought unsurpassed in American poetry”, (White 19).
Although Dickinson was obviously good at heart, the townspeople did not know what to make of her. They noticed that the only color she ever wore was white and started to give her nicknames such as “The Woman in White”, “The half cracked daughter of squire Dickinson”, and probably the most famous “The Eccentric Recluse”. Dickinson chose to deviate from society and simplified her life like Thoreau who believed that being without was a means of being with, (Nesteruk 82). Dickinson grew obsessed with death and most of her friends departed.
Nevertheless, she pressed on writing poems that would send chills up a reader’s spine, “Many readers have been intrigued by Dickinson’s ability to probe the fact of human deathShe can look straight at approaching death”(Nesteruk 188). In the focused poem “I heard a fly buzz when I died”, she demonstrates her style of eerie, aberrant writing. She uses emotions like uselessness, hopelessness and carelessness. In the poem, Emily describes herself on her deathbead. She applies her acute senses and her natural impressions of scenes and moods.
Various scholars have interpreted the fly’s symbolism in this poem in different ways. Robert Wiesbuch, a celebrated analyst of American poetry from the University of Chicago said, She has chosen to symbolize life through the ugly annoyance of the fly,” (Wiesbuch 59). Others, like Ruth Miller say, To the dying person, the buzzing fly would symbolize a timely, untimely reminder of man’s final cadaverous condition and putrefaction, (Miller 127). Most critics agree with Miller on the fly’s symbolism because their first impression is that the fly was to be used as a distraction to Emily’s thoughts.
Some scholars believe that the fly was supposed to represent a parasite, similar to a vulture waiting for an animal to die, The dull hum of the fly on the windowpane, suggesting the fly’s anticipation of her as decaying flesh, ultimately echoes her larger theme that this world is all, (Mudge 76). Emily Dickinson used the feeling of the calm of the storm to describe the mysterious atmosphere in the beginning of her poem, “The stillness round my form; Was like the stillness in the air; Between the heaves of storm…
Next, she began to describe the last few moments leading up to her death, “The eyes beside had wrung them dry,; And breaths were gathering sure; For that last onset” Dickinson then goes on to explain that she is prepared to die on this day, “I willed my keepsakes, signed away; What portion of me I; Could make assignable,–and then” Then the fly makes his unexpected experience, “There interposed a fly,; With blue, uncertain, stumbling buzz,; Between the light and me;” Finally, the closing lines, “And then the windows failed, and then; I could not see to see.
The last two lines represent her death. Emily Dickinson’s obsession with death has puzzled scholars for many decades. “I Heard a Fly Buzz when I Died” is just one of the numerous examples of Emily Dickinson’s obsession with death.