The speaker says that she heard a fly buzz as she lay on her deathbed. The room was as still as the air between “the Heaves” of a storm. The eyes around her had cried themselves out, and the breaths were firming themselves for “that last Onset,” the moment when, metaphorically, “the King / Be witnessed—in the Room—.” The speaker made a will and “Signed away / What portion of me be / Assignable—” and at that moment, she heard the fly. It interposed itself “With blue—uncertain stumbling Buzz—” between the speaker and the light; “the Windows failed”; and then she died (“I could not see to see—”).
“I heard a Fly buzz” employs all of Dickinson’s formal patterns: trimeter and tetrameter iambic lines (four stresses in the first and third lines of each stanza, three in the second and fourth, a pattern Dickinson follows at her most formal); rhythmic insertion of the long dash to interrupt the meter; and an ABCB rhyme scheme. Interestingly, all the rhymes before the final stanza are half-rhymes (Room/Storm, firm/Room, be/Fly), while only the rhyme in the final stanza is a full rhyme (me/see). Dickinson uses this technique to build tension; a sense of true completion comes only with the speaker’s death.
One of Dickinson’s most famous poems, “I heard a Fly buzz” strikingly describes the mental distraction posed by irrelevant details at even the most crucial moments—even at the moment of death. The poem then becomes even weirder and more macabre by transforming the tiny, normally disregarded fly into the figure of death itself, as the fly’s wing cuts the speaker off from the light until she cannot “see to see.” But the fly does not grow in power or stature; its final severing act is performed “With Blue—uncertain stumbling Buzz—.” This poem is also remarkable for its detailed evocation of a deathbed scene—the dying person’s loved ones steeling themselves for the end, the dying woman signing away in her will “What portion of me be / Assignable” (a turn of phrase that seems more Shakespearean than it does Dickinsonian).