The Heidelberg Writers Group

Why bluebottle fly?


A fly doesn't sound very pleasant. "Bluebottle" might redeem it, if only because the word (but not its object) has a sonorous quality to most ears. But the astute observer may also note that the bluebottle fly – a common housefly – breeds in decaying organic matter. It is, as one HWG member noted with alarm, often the first thing to arrive hovering over a freshly dead body.

Yuck! Well, but we do hope you've also noticed the title bar to our pages: "I heard a fly buzz when I died;" we quote. The line is from a poem of Emily Dickinson's. One critic has stated: "'I heard a fly buzz when I died' is one of Emily Dickinson's finest opening lines." (Click the link for access to his full article and the poem itself.)

One can say that the intrusion of the fly with his buzz overpowers the last gasp of the living. The protagonist in the poem is a dying woman. Her last human act, shared by every one of us without exception, is that of dying. Yet the fly – symbolic for insignificance, for something vexatious and exasperating, steals her final moment, as it were.

We can only save our sense of final human dignity by contemplating the significance of the fly as a foil. The juxtaposition of frail death (and our ultimate obligatory acceptance of it) and the nattering insignificance of the universe (and our place in it) does have literary punch. That, in my view, is what this poem's about.

For what in my view is a very fine analysis of the poem, I refer the gentle reader to this article from The American Poetry Review, by Michael Ryan: "How to Use a Fly: A Column."

— D.R.