Realist melancholy

(Note: this week is “Summer Experience” at UMF, where incoming first year students have an intense week of discussion oriented work, with each class reading the same material — an ecclectic interdisciplinary set of works designed to stimulate thought and discussion.  This week I will blog about one of the writings each day.   Last year for day five I wrote about Robinson Jeffer’s piece The Answer.)

I always have trouble with poems.  I’ve written poetry, but I don’t analyze it well.  Luckily, my student assistant this year, Jade Forester, is a poetry expert and has taken over the class when we discuss poems.  I become one of the students (which is good modeling to students of how we’re all teachers and learners).  But today I’ll attempt a blog entry about a poem, this one Emily Dickinson’s “I heard a Fly Buzz.”

The poem is short, the first stanza is:

I heard a Fly buzz — when I died
The Stillness in the Room
Was like the Stillness in the Air
Between the Heaves of Storm

Here I picture a serene room, with a woman on a bed, white drapes on a window at either twilight or dawn.  No one is with her, the room is silent, and then the focus turns towards one of the window drapes upon which a fly sits, and then takes off buzzing.   The woman, eyes closed, breaths one loud, last breath, and then everything is still.   Yet the sense from the last line is that this stillness is a moment of piece, with chaos and uncertainty both preceding and following it.   Next section:

The eyes around — had wrung them dry —
And Breaths were gathering firm
For the last Onset — when the King
Be witnessed — in the room —

This takes me back in time to before the fly enters.  The eyes around were family and friends, but somehow cold.  They had accepted the coming death, they had dry eyes and firm breaths…but her eyes were now dry as she faces death, no remorse, and a sense of firm acceptance of the inevitable.   The King is death, and is the fly, entering the room.  Next:

I willed my keepsakes — Signed away
What portion of me be
Assignable — and then it was
There interposed a Fly

With Blue — uncertain stumbling Buzz
Between the light — and me —
And then the Windows failed — and then
I could not see to see

She had let go of not only her hope for life, but all her possessions, assigning them away both literally and figuratively, they mattered to her no more.  She was at the moment of total surrender as the fly appeared.  The blue is a mix of the light from outside (probably twilight, maybe dawn) and the drape, a literal blue from the literal window, and a figurative blue inside her soul.   The fly now stands between the world of the real, and the world of her soul.  Its buzz connects the material world with the spiritual, the buzz exists in both.  She is in transition.  Then the windows failed.  The literal window, the windows that are her eyes, and the window of her soul.  Death came.  And then…mystery.   Whatever is next cannot be expressed.

To me this poem is one of realist melancholy.   Death is not posited as a transition to some other place, be it heaven, hell or a spiritual door to another life.   It isn’t a revelation of a greater reality.   The end doesn’t turn grief to joy, or pain to pleasure.   Yet it also isn’t a snuffing out of existence completely, or the absolute end.  It is a mystery.  There is a sense of fear that it could be an absolute end.   The blue is a color of melancholy and coldness, and the windows failing shows no sense of what is to come.

Yet, despite the fear, the buzz is uncertain and stumbling.   Perhaps, just perhaps, there is something more, something yet to come.   Perhaps the buzz is a gateway.   That “perhaps” seems to be half-hearted, the melancholy chokes off any hope.  But yet, it is a mystery.

This poem to me shows me a take on reality that I do not normally feel.  I know that the end is a mystery as well.   Yet mine is a spiritual optimism.  Despite the mystery, I believe that death cannot be the real end, and that it must only be a transition.  I do not believe the soul can truly perish, I suspect we live other lives, either here or on other planes, I suspect that the world we experience is only a shadow of a greater reality.   Like flies unaware that they are either buzzing around the White House or destroyed death filled Sudanese villages, we are only dimly aware of the greater reality.

If I were writing the poem, the fly and its buzz would represent our ignorance, and death would be an expansion of the mind and soul to comprehend at least in part the limits of this world.  But I do not get that sense of spiritual optimism from Dickinson.  Her fly seems colder, less certain, and melancholy.   Death is not feared, she expresses no anger or even a desire to hold on.   Where my optimism is a kind of idealism, a willingness to trust my feeling that there is something more, her melancholy is a realist one, recognition that there is no grounds for optimism other than hope and faith — and one gets the sense that she can arouse neither.  Or, perhaps, as soon as she feels a sense of hope, her realism dashes it.   The best hope that there is something more is from the fourth line of the poem — if she is between the heaves of storm, then perhaps there storm will continue.

She’s left with a thread of hope, battered and frayed, barely noticable, symbolized only by the buzz of a fly.

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  1. #1 by Mike Lovell on June 27, 2009 - 13:54

    I never really was good at “getting it” when it came to poetry. That inability is rivaled closely by my ability to “get it” when it comes to the interpretations provided!!!

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