Generally, self-identity can be defined in terms of 1) one's nature
or inner essence, or 2) one's differences from, or relations with,
others. How about the following poems? (Pay attention
to the "I/We-You" relations in the poems.) Which of these poems
do you consider to be feminist? Which do you identify with most?
Application & Wild Association
1. Compare the poem with the animation "The
Bulge" and Chagall's painting (see Above).
How different are these three (four, if you include the animator's) presentations
of pregnancy? Do the differences have to do with the gender of the
poets, painter and animator? What is your view of pregnant
How would you describe or characterize the speaker in this poem?
What is she like in the first stanza? Does she seem
different in the second stanza?
Please read the poem outloud and decide why it has so many dashes.
Does it signify suspense, secrecy, and/or hesitancy? How do
you characterize the speaker, who speaks with long pauses? This
poem, in part, is about the spaces and distance between people.
Do the dashes, then, create a sense of distance and isolation? What
other effects do they create?
What is the speakers relationship with "you"? Who is "you"? What
new identity does the speaker take on by seeing herself as a a pair
of us? Who are "they" mentioned in the first stanza?
Could the "you" in the first stanza be the "Somebody" in the second?
What more do we get to know about the speaker in this stanza?
( To interest you: "Dickinson had what appears to
have been a normal childhood---was bright, witty, had friends, went
to parties---but by her early 30's began a withdrawal which later
became almost complete: there were occasions when even people whom
she obviously loved had to speak with her from the other side of an
Do you see yourself as a somebody or nobody?
Or both or neither?
You can contrast the self this poem with two contemporary
feminist songs: Sinead O'Connor's "Red
Football, " Alanis Morissete's "Not
the Doctor." Can you explain the similarities and differences
What do you imagine yourself seeing or hearing at the very
moment of death? What does the fly mean?
After the 1st Reading:
Speaker and Tense: Who is the speaker of this poem?
Where is she? Is she living or dead? Why is the poem written
in the past tense?
The Fly: What are the connotations for the word fly?
How are some of those connotations helpful for understanding
Stanza 1: What does "the stillness in the room"
refer to? There are two sets of contrasts in this stanza:
fly vs. stillness; stillness vs. heaves of storms. For your
reference, the stillness between two heaves of storms can refer
literally to the eye of a hurricane, or the circular area of
relative calm that is found at the center of a cyclone. But
what about its symbolic meaning?
Stanzas 2 and 3:-- The second and third stanzas show
more clearly what moment of death the poem is about? Can
you describe it? -
-- And the attitudes of the speaker as well as those around
her? For instance, why are the people described as eyes and
breaths, God, the King, and death, the last onset (meaning "attack"
and "start")? Why is the dead speaker worried about
what of his/hers belong to whom?
Stanzas 3 and 4: --Instead of God the King, there
comes a fly. Before mentioning the fly, there is a dash, just
as there is one at the end of the first line. What do these
dashes possibly mean?
-- Why does the speaker describe the sound of the fly in the
final stanza as being "With Blue--uncertain stumbling Buzz"?
-- "I could not see to see." The last line contains
what seems to be a contradiction. What could it mean? A clue:
what does the "Windows" that fail mean? Reading back,
what could the room (which is filled with stillness) mean for
the dying speaker?
Questions or After the 2nd Reading:
Some similes and metaphors are used to give us a picture
of the moment before death. Why is Stillness associated with
Storms? What is the "assignable portion" that the
speaker signs away? Why does the fly have "Blue--uncertain
stumbling Buzz"? What is the Windows that fail at the end?
Dickinson is a master of slant rhymes (a type of rhyme
where the final consonant sound of two words is identical, but
the final vowel sounds are not the same.). For instance,the
words "Room" and "Storm" in this poem.What
effects do the rhymes in this poem create (for instance, connecting
"room" and "storm," "firm" and
room," "buzz" with "there it was,"
and "me" and "see"?
As the poem is quite ambiguous, please try again to sort
out its multiple meanings.
If the window means that of the
soul, and if "the fly" means something
mundane and distracting, how ironic is the moment of death
is, as opposed to a Christian view which holds that God
would come to pick one up?
If the window means that of our
eyes, the room, our consciousness, and the fly, as
David Porter puts it,"the buzz of ceaseless consciousness,"
maybe the speaker merely loses his/her physical senses ("see
to see") but s/he can still see in another way?
Application--Why does Dickensen write so much about
death (Cf. "Because I could not stop for Death" p. 741)?
How is her view of death different from, or similar to, yours?
Please also compare this poem with the views of death expressed
in "Not Waving but Drowning" and "Do Not Go Gentle
into that Good Night."
Some background information: does it influence your reading
of the poem?
Emily Dickinson in her life experienced a lot of family
deaths and deaths in the community of Amherst. For a long
time, her bedroom window overlooked the village graveyard.
Emily Dickinson wrote the poem "I HEARD A FLY buzz--when
I died" during The Civil War--in 1863, according to her
latest editor. Around this time, she herself might have early
symptoms of anterior uveitis, («e¬q¸²µå½¤ª¢
, a kind of eye disease), which made her think she was going
blind. However, she wrote on the Civil War in a letter: "Every
day life feels mightier, and what we have the power to be,
more stupendous" (Ryan).
Reference: Ryan, Michael. "How to use a
fly." The American Poetry Review, March-April 2004 v33
"A NOISELESS PATIENT SPIDER"
1. What does the first stanza suggest about the spider? What activity
is the spider engaged in? Keeping in mind that activity,
why is the second line so much longer than the first line?
2. The second stanza implies that the speaker is like the spider. In
what ways is the speakers soul like the spider? What activity does his
soul do? How is that activity like the workings of the spider?
3. The first stanza presents the vacant vast surrounding encompassing
the spider, while the second stanza presents measureless
oceans of space around the soul. What other similarities and parrallels
do you see between the two stanzas?
Application & Wild Association
1. If you were going to compare yourself to an animal, what animal
would you choose? Why?
2. The song "Sound
of Silence" can be seen as another search for inner soul--by talking
to darkness as an old friend. Please pay attention to the contrasts
in imagery between darkness and light, silence and sound. The phrase
"sound of silence" is an oxymoron; can you explain why?