Living To Die Or Dying To Live English Literature Essay

The uncertainty of what happens in the afterlife has always been a topic that has received much attention from literature. Death is typically addressed as a monumental moment when an individual ceases to exist in this world. In poem 465 (I heard a Fly buzz), Emily Dickinson provides a unique interpretation of dying in which it can be seen as a process. Through the application of the concepts of New Criticism, this paper will show that the theme of poem 465 is that dying, like living, is an ongoing event and not simply a moment that occurs at some point in time. This intertwining of processes blurs the line of distinction between life and death. Consequently, it can be determined that poem 465 does possess organic unity and this can be supported by its formal elements.

Since living and dying are both ongoing events in a person’s life, it can be assumed that the two are interrelated. This is established in the first line of the poem when the narrator experiences the sense of hearing, but immediately follows by stating that he or she is dead. This instantly creates tension in the poem because it brings life and death together which are typically in opposition. The initial tension provides complexity for the text which is built upon as the poem progresses.

Dickinson applies imagery to this poem in a distinctive way by providing an opportunity for open interpretation and personalization. However, it is very much imagery because she is able to evoke a sensory experience through the use of language. The first line of the poem states:

“I heard a Fly buzz – when I died -“

Dickinson uses the word “buzz” which is characteristic of onomatopoeia because it imitates the sound it is describing. This type of auditory imagery creates a scene that is very alive and active, but it is quickly followed by the line “…when I died-.” The new scene is passive and lifeless. She uses imagery to strongly develop the introduction and then confuses the senses by offering an opposing image.

The remaining three lines of the first stanza employ a simile that creates a type of emotional imagery.

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“The Stillness in the Room

Was like the Stillness in the Air –

Between the Heaves of Storm -“

These lines provide a description of what the mood was like in the room where the narrator was dying. She compares it to the calm of a storm before it spurs up again. The feeling of that calm is typically somewhat heavy and tense because more chaos is anticipated. Life is expected to have its ups and downs, but dying is usually portrayed as an orderly downhill process. Dickinson highlights the fact that even dying will have volatile fluctuations as life does.

Visual imagery occurs in the second stanza as it beings with the line:

“The Eyes around – had wrung them dry-“

This line does not seem to provide much of a description, but the image it provides can be very vivid. It is left open for interpretation; however it does provide many details. First, “The Eyes” function as a synecdoche for all of the people in the room. It is plural, so it can be assumed that there are more than just the narrator and one other person in the room. Also, it can be inferred that the people in the room have been crying from the line “…had wrung them dry-.” Furthermore, the multitude of tears would suggest that the narrator is deeply loved by the people in the room. The narrator must have been dying for more than a short amount of time since the eyes had been wrung dry from so much crying. This section works together to show that dying is a process that occurs while someone is living. The distinction between the two is extremely blurred if they are not the same.

The last stanza contains another instance of imagery when the narrator says:

“With Blue – uncertain stumbling Buzz-

Between the light – and me -“

Dickinson does use the word “buzz” again to induce the sense of hearing to strengthen the image. This provides the image of a pesky fly that someone tries to shoo away with their hand, but it continues to buzz around them. The lines also suggest that the narrator is approaching death because she is seeing a light. These lines are intriguing because the shooing away of a fly is a trivial part of life, but it becomes a central part of his or her death. This shows the subtle interconnections of life and death.

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The reoccurring image of the Fly functions as a symbol for this poem. A fly can be representative of death because they are seen around decomposing matter. They also function as part of the decomposition process. However, they are also tied to life because as matter decays, it can become nourishment for new life. Flies have a dual role in the process of decay and growth. This ties directly to the poem’s theme that life and death are both processes that are interrelated.

There are shifts in the poem where the narrator is active and then inactive. The poem begins by stating an action that the narrator accomplished: hearing the fly buzz. It is followed by lines that create a scene of mourning and death. However, the third stanza shows action again as she “willed her [my] keepsakes.” Then the scene switches again so that the light appears which marks death and inaction. The last line combines this pattern of action and inaction because the narrator attempts to see or attempts action, but is unable to do so which results in inaction. This is symbolic of the friction created from the driving force of life and the restricting nature of death.

Dickinson also employs an oxymoron in the second stanza and third line. The words “last Onset” are used which mean the last beginning. The two words contradict one another, but most likely symbolize the paradox that to live you must die. It could be addressing the idea that death is the beginning of a new life. It is somewhat unclear, but supports the claim that death and life are connected with hazy lines of distinction.

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There is another ambiguity in the same line mentioned previously. The word “King” is mentioned, but its meaning is unclear. The most apparent representations would be Death or God. These two would be in opposition of one another because God is a symbol of eternal life and Death implies an end. This vagueness is also seen between the distinction of life and death.

The identity of the narrator is also vague throughout the poem. It does not describe if it is a male or female, the age, religion, etc. The most interesting uncertainty is the question of what is the narrator. It is clear that the narrator is no longer alive because in the first line he or she states the fact of his or her death. Therefore, the narrator must be assumed to be some sort of ghost or spirit. Even after the narrator dies, he or she is still living in some sense because he or she is able to describe the experience. This perpetuates the idea that death is not a single event, but an ongoing process similar to life.

The tone of the narrator is important to this analysis because it supports the idea that dying is not within a single moment. The scene being described throughout the poem is the narrator’s death scene by the narrator. The narrator seems unaffected for it to be about his or her death. It is described with simplicity and seems perfunctory. If death were an impactful event instead of an ongoing process then the narrator would have spoken with a more emotional tone.

It is evident that poem 465 by Emily Dickinson does have organic unity due to its complexity and interworking of formal elements. Its theme is that dying, like living, is an ongoing process and the distinction between the two is hazy to say the least. This theme focuses on death and life which provides it with universal human significance.

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