Emily Dickinson's Collected Poems

Death: Triumph or Tragedy?

Emily Dickinson's poem, "I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died," is an attempt to answer one of the premier questions of life: What happens when we die? In her word choice, images, and patterns of sound, Dickinson reflects the incongruence between the prevailing religious attitudes about death and the afterlife and her personal feelings about immortality. She seems to say that we may think we have figured out how death will be, but maybe it isn't that way at all. Maybe it is not attended by the strains of heavenly choirs or brilliant lights illuminating the mysteries of eternity. Maybe death is as ordinary as a fly buzzing around the room, and when it's over the soul is left sitting in the dark.

Like her life, the poem is a mixture of conformity and nonconformity. It is written in the form, rhythm, and meter of a church hymn - four stanzas of four iambic lines with four stresses in the first and third lines, and three stresses in the second and fourth lines. Thoughts of death and immortality may require this kind of dignity, but the likeness to a hymn ends there. She does not perfectly rhyme the second and fourth lines, but uses slant rhyme instead, as in "Room-Storm," "firm-Room," and...

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