This poem is another where the speaker is writing from beyond the grave, and like “Because I could not stop for Death,” it is describing the scene of the speaker’s death, although in a very different way. The poem opens with a fly interrupting “The Stillness in the Room,” which, however, is not a permanent peace, since it is “like the Stillness in the Air --/Between the Heaves of Storm –.”
In the next stanza, we see that although the room is so quiet that the speaker can hear a fly buzz, there are in fact many people there, waiting for her death. They have all finished crying (“The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –“) and are preparing for her final moments (“And Breaths were gathering firm/For that last Onset”), when it is presumed she will see God, who will lead her to the afterlife (“when the King/Be witnessed – in the Room –“).
The speaker, as per the Victorian tradition of death bed scenes, then wills away all of her material possessions (“I willed my Keepsakes – Signed away/What portion of me be/Assignable”). A fly then interrupts the scene, and its “uncertain stumbling buzz” distracts the speaker, gets between her and “the light” of death, or more probably, what the speaker hopes will follow death. The speaker then loses consciousness—“And then the Windows failed – and then/I could not see to see –,” which ends the poem, as we can imagine, with her death.
Like many of her poems, “I heard a Fly buzz – when I died –“ has a speaker who communicates to the reader from beyond the grave. This poem, however, unlike “Because I could not stop for Death,“ is focused not on what comes after death—eternity and the afterlife—but instead is focused on the actual rites of dying, of having one’s last moments. Indeed, this poem’s only dealings with the question of afterlife and eternity come in the fact that the speaker is speaking from beyond the grave, and in order to speak must have some kind of existence after death.
The clues that the death scene itself is the most important element of the poem is clear for several reasons. First, the poem is entirely located in a room—even in its metaphors, the perspective does not leave the room, with the only exception being the imagined still air between “the Heaves of Storm,” which is a generic enough image not to pull the reader out of the bedroom. In addition, Dickinson repeats the phrase “in the Room,” in the first and second stanzas, making sure the reader has not wandered away from this setting.
Finally, the fly’s importance also emphasizes this focus on the process of death. Were it the afterlife, faith, or the journey to eternity that proved most important, the fly would be a minor character; but it is, instead, the only significant character besides the speaker in the poem and the character that best represents the poem’s climactic moment. Its significance is so apparent that it comes between the speaker and “the light" -- this small, very earthly bug thus supplants spirituality and the afterlife.
This bug and its consequences ultimately represents the speaker’s inability to hold on to spirituality, faith, or hope, in the face of death. The speaker is participating in a common deathbed ritual of the time—people would, as the end came near, will away their possessions, followed by a kind of climax where they would announce the presence of God or of some spirit ready to take them to the next life, before they died, and all of this before an audience of their close friends and family.
Dickinson’s speaker succeeds in willing away her objects, but she is distracted by the idea that not all of her is “assignable”—presumably, this unassignable part being her spirit or soul. Just as she has this thought, and thus is likely close to seeing “the light” and announcing that “the King/Be witnessed – in the Room –,“ she is interrupted by the fly. This fly, which reminds us of the most physical aspects of death, the rotting and decomposition of the corpse, stands between the speaker and the spiritual “light.” While physicality distracts the speaker from a final revelation, however, the poem does not say that all hope should be lost, for the speaker’s very ability to write this poem means that there is an afterlife, after all.