Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Emily Dickinson’s mystifying in-sight

Larry Zaroff
Tony Chan
Palo Alto, California, United States

Image of Emily Dickinson.

In “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died—,” Emily Dickinson manifests her mystifying insight into the physiology of the death of vision, going beyond death and living to talk about it (465).1 Remarkably, her poetic vision provides insights into the function of eyesight that parallels what is currently known of ophthalmic physiology.

One can speculate that her interest in the function of the eye probably began as a result of an unknown eye disease, which required her to travel to Boston in 1864 for eight months of therapy.  She returned to Boston for seven more months of care in 1865, after which she apparently had no further ophthalmic problems.2  In a letter to her friend, Joseph Lyman, she expressed her distress: “Some years ago I had a woe, the only one that ever made me tremble.  It was a shutting out of all the dearest ones of time, the strongest friends of the soul—BOOKS. The medical man said, ‘avaunt ye (books) tormenters….’ He might as well have said, ‘Eyes be blind, heart be still.’”3 For Dickinson to live without sight was unthinkable.  In 1862, she presciently wrote, “And when the Film had stitched your eyes / A Creature gasped “Reprieve”! / Which Anguish was the utterest – then – / To perish, or to live?” (414). Sight was everything to Emily Dickinson; not just for writing, but also reading, her principal passions, the relief of her cloister.

Sufficiently uneasy about her sight, she included those anxieties in her poems.  As early as 1858, she wrote, “My wheel is in the dark! / I cannot see a spoke” (10).  A reasonable hypothesis is that her vision began to deteriorate in 1861. In April 1862, two years before undergoing ocular treatment, she confessed to Higginson: “I had a terror – since September – I could tell to none – and so I sing, as the boy does by the Burying Ground – because I am afraid – You inquire my Books.”4,5 The linkage of her “terror” with her “Books” is revealing as the etiology of her fear. Her concerns find abundant song in poems composed in 1862; even taken out of context, her repeated allusions to loss of vision are impressive—as she stated in one poem, “Before I got my eye put out / I liked as well to see- / As other Creatures, that have Eyes” (327).

Although she had awful apprehensions over the possible loss of vision, Emily Dickinson was not disquieted by death, another frequent subject of her poetry. As Charles Anderson has suggested, her poems represent her conquest of the fear of death.6  In her work exploring death, of which there is a vast amount, she seldom expressed a dread of dying itself, but of the loss of love and connection:

Dying! To be afraid of thee
One must to thine Artillery
Have left exposed a Friend –
Than thine old Arrow is a Shot
Delivered straighter to the Heart
The leaving Love behind

She was well acquainted with dying since, in the nineteenth century, the ill did not die in a hospital or an intensive care unit or a hospice.  Dying took place at home; relatives and friends made time to care for the terminally ill.  If Dickinson was not always in attendance at the bedside, she wrote many letters of loss and empathy, helping friends and family members accept death and console the bereaved.

In the light of Dickinson’s manifest fascination with death and vision, it is natural that her poetry should conflate the “Dying eye” (831), question what happens to sight on dying, and investigate “that Ethereal Zone / No Eye hath seen and lived” (890).  From 1860 to 1862 she wrote many poems exploring this theme: “Dying! Dying in the night! / Won’t somebody bring the light / So I can see which way to go” (158).  In 1862 she began to visualize both the outer and the inner eye during the process of death: “A Dying Tiger – moaned for Drink – / …His Mighty Balls – in death were thick – / But searching – I could see / A Vision of the Retina / Of Water – and of me – ” (566).  She would, moreover, consider in greater detail the death of human vision, both as an external observer of the loss and then as an internal eyewitness of her own blindness in “I heard a Fly buzz-when I died-.”

She began to chronicle the loss of vision by observing the death of vision in another’s eye, that is, from the outside looking in, by seeing with her living eye the external changes that occur.  Versifying, perhaps with her own “Beclouded Eyes!” (168), she describes changes that the eyes undergo during death: “The Eyes glaze once – and that is Death – ” (241) and “A Drowsiness – diffuses – / A Dimness like a Fog / Envelops Consciousness – / As Mists – obliterate a Craig’” (396).  In poem 547, also written in 1862, Dickinson summarizes these observations:

I’ve seen a Dying Eye
Run round and round a Room –
In search of Something as it seemed –
Then Cloudier become –
And then – obscure with Fog –
And then – be soldered down
Without disclosing what it be
‘Twere blessed to have seen –

Throughout her poetry chronicling the ophthalmic deterioration that occurs in death, Dickinson notes the changes that occur in the dying cornea and lens: glaze, dimness, fog, mists, film, cloudier. Her observations reflect what medical science currently understands as the alterations that occur within the eye during the process of death. We know that shortly after death the cornea and lens become edematous (swollen with fluid) and begin to lose their transparency.7 Beyond the gradual demise of the cornea and lens, sealed by the soldering of the eyelids and the coffin, the poem tells us much more. We sense both the frantic sadness and deadly desperation of the failure of the “Dying Eye,” as well as the poet’s fierce desire to know for herself what “‘Twere blessed to have seen—.” She realizes that “No lid has Memory—;“so she must return from death to comprehend the “Dying Eye” (939).  Thus “I’ve seen a Dying Eye” prepares us for the next sequential step, an analysis of the internal and personal current of visual loss that occurs in “I heard a Fly buzz-when I died” (465).  A brief review of the physiology of dying will emphasize how well she conjures up the mutations in the expiring eye.

As death approaches, gradually less oxygen-carrying blood is pumped by the failing heart, causing functional loss of the bodily organs.  Seeing while dying should be possible until the retina and/or the occipital cortex of the brain, the final mediator of vision, becomes deprived of oxygen and loses its capability.  The most metabolically active of all our tissues, the retina, for its operation, surpasses every other organ in relative blood flow and oxygen requirement.8,9 The loss of vision while dying should be sequential, greying occurring first as cones (the retinal mediators of color and probably more metabolically active than rods, the agents of black, white, and grey) lose function. Greys, therefore, persist through the retinal rods after loss of color perception occurs. Finally the rods, too, fail, and we are blind.10 

Given the stepwise physiology of oxygen deprivation and the sensitivity of the visual apparatus to oxygen loss, hearing may temporarily persist after sight ends. Children with hypoxic encephalitis (inflammation of the brain associated with lack of oxygen) often have visual disturbances but rarely lose hearing function. When fighter pilots, in the course of certain maneuvers, are subjected to larger gravitational forces than normal, blood flow to the retinal vessels is inhibited first and they “greyout,” losing peripheral vision. As gravitational forces build, the pilots then “blackout,” losing central vision and becoming blind.  However, they can hear, talk and think until consciousness too is lost, and gravitational forces heighten still further, finally halting all blood flow to the brain.11,12

During the dying process, loss of sight would not be sudden because of the gradual lowering of oxygen tension as the circulation of blood decreases. As the retinas falter, sound may become relatively more prominent, just as the other senses of the blind tend to become more acute.13 The sequence of events in the “Fly” poem coincides nicely with the orderly ophthalmic and auditory events of dying.

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 –
The Eyes around – had wrung them dry –
And Breaths were gathering firm
For that last Onset – when the King
Be witnessed – in the Room –
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 –

In this poem, Dickinson successfully uncovers an area hardly touched upon by cognitive scientists, neurophysiologists, ophthalmologists, psychiatrists or others concerned with feelings. Describing mortality and imagining resurrection in the sixteen lines of “I heard a Fly buzz-when I died,” Dickinson goes beyond emotion, experientially approaching ophthalmic physiology as she considers the loss of vision while maintaining hearing during the final moments of life.

Vision shifts downward, step by step, deeper and deeper toward darkness, first allowing enough seeing to witness the arrival of God or Death (the “King” in line eight) and then to sign a will in the following stanza. In the last cycle, eyesight fades to a blue, the retinal cones still working, but predominated by the buzz, uncertain, stumbling, as hearing also begins to fade.  But, still, the hum is loud enough to go beyond and between her light as vision fades away faster than hearing. And then, as the retinal rods fail, sight exhausts itself and so “light” must fail to appear; we are left instead with “the Windows failed – ” as the bright sunlight at the window is eclipsed, and finally, all of seeing ends, concluding with an absolute and total black, rendered powerfully in the last line by the three “eyes”:  “I…see…see.”

Vision disappears, as if one “I…see…see” is lost, then the other, and finally the last “I…see…see,” the very idea of sight is gone: “I could not see to see;” now the very understanding, the intellect of seeing on a cerebral level is gone; the cessation of blood flow to the brain has deprived it of oxygen. The brain can no longer function; it is dead, and the dying is over.  “It is dead… Out of sound – Out of sight – “(417).  That final “I…see…see,” is more meaningful to her than the physiology of the visual apparatus, more significant to her than the concept of vision. For Emily Dickinson, seeing represents the essential self as in the “me be” of line ten.  “I could not see to see – “speaks of the death of her poetic imagination, her in-sight. The briskness, the shortness of the last line leaves readers with a closure; our eyelids droop for there is only white space–nothing else to read or to see. She has taken us to the death of vision, seemingly more important to her than the death of life itself.

How then can we explain Emily Dickinson’s mystifying in-sight into the flight of vision? How was she able to inform herself? In The Death-Motif in the Poetry of Emily Dickinson and Christina Rossetti, Claudia Ottinger writes that Dickinson and Rossetti:

describe themselves in the very act of dying, a moment which fires their imagination most. As death is beyond the limits of man’s judgment and reason, as it is what man knows least through direct and first-hand experience, it cannot be explained in terms of rational discourse or scientific thought, but remains a raw material for speculation and a supreme challenge to a dynamic imagination.14

For Dickinson, insight may have come, in part, from her long contact with the eye doctor, which led to some knowledge of ocular function and anatomy, including the “retina” in her “Tiger” poem. Her extensive reading and her familiarity with death in friends and relatives may have contributed to her wisdom.  But none of this is enough to explain her mystifying insight.  As with so much of Emily Dickinson’s work, we are left with her imponderable intelligence, her impalpable imagination, and the poetic sensibility of her inward eye. As she wrote in 1868, “The Truth must dazzle gradually / Or every man be blind – ” (1129).


  1. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations from Dickinson’s poetry are from: T. H. Johnson., ed. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1960.
    • The number of the poem is given in the parenthesis.
    • Additional references to loss of sight: 410, 419, 871, 971, 993.
    • Additional references to dying: 237 and 255.
    • Additional references to sight and dying: 479.
  1. Sewall, Richard. The Life of Emily Dickinson. New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1974. 636.
  2. Sewall, Richard. The Lyman Letters: New Light on Emily Dickinson and Her Family. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1965. 74-76.
    • Exact date of when Dickinson wrote these letters is unknown, but most likely the collection of excerpts from her letters to Lyman is from the mid sixties to the early seventies
  1. Johnson, Thomas H. Emily Dickinson: An Interpretive Biography. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1955. 3, 21.
    • Thomas Wentworth Higginson was a critic and publicist who corresponded with Dickinson for some twenty-one years.
  1. Johnson, Thomas H., Ed. Emily Dickinson Selected Letters. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1958. 172.
  2. Anderson, Charles Roberts.  Emily Dickinson’s Poetry: Stairway of Surprise. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1982. 228.
  3. Smelser, G. K. “Relation of factors involved in maintenance of optical properties of cornea to contact lens wear.” A.M.A. Arch. Ophthal 47 (1952): 328. Smelser, G. K., and Chen, D. K.. “Physiological changes in cornea induced by contact lenses.” A.M.A. Arch. Ophthal 53 (1955): 676.
    • Findings from the above two are summarized in: Pirie, Antoinette. “The Biochemistry of the Eye.” Proceedings of the Nutrition Society 19:1 (1960): 73-78. Published online by Cambridge University Press in 2007.
  1. Alm A., Bill A., and Young F.. “The effects of pilocarpine and neostigmine on the blood flow through the anterior uvea in monkeys: a study with radioactively labeled microspheres.” Exp Eye Res 15.31 (1973).
    • Folkow B., and Neil E. In Circulation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1971. Data collected from the above two are combined to form a graph comparing blood flow to different tissues in the body, which is depicted in this book: Kaufman, Paul L., Alm, Albert. Adler’s Physiology of the Eye: Clinical Application. St. Louis, Missouri: Mosby, 2003. 761.
  1. Cohen, L. H., Niekkm W. K., “Glucose catabolism of rabbit retina before and after development of visual function.” Journal of Neurochemistry 5 (1960): 253-276.
    • Cohen, L. H., and Noell, W.K., “Relationships between visual function and metabolism.” in Biochemistry of the Retina. London: Academic Press, 1965. 36-50.
    • Findings from the above two are summarized in: Berman, Elaine R. Biochemistry of the Eye. New York: Plenum Press, 1991. 311. (“Neural retina has a higher rate of respiration and glucose oxidation than any other tissue examined in vitro,” Cohen and Noell 1960, 1965; Graymore, 1970)
  1. Kaufman, Paul L., Alm, Albert. Adler’s Physiology of the Eye: Clinical Application. St. Louis, Missouri: Mosby, 2003. pp. 324, 327, 329-330, 342, & 388.
  2. Cioni,G. MD studied forty-eight patients with neonatal encephalopathy and visual impairment.  Only one of this group sustained hearing loss (letter 7/19/97) Senior Researcher, Division of Child Neurology and Psychiatry, Department of Procreation and Developmental Medicine, University of Pisa, and Child Neurologist and Head, Infant Section, Stella Maris Scientific Institute, 56018 Calambrone, Pisa, Italy
  3. Newman, D.G.. “May the G-force be with you.” Flight Safety Australia July-August (2002): 26-29.
  4. Niemeyer, W. and Starlinger, I.. “Do the Blind Hear Better? Investigations on Auditory Processing in Congenital or Early Acquired Blindness II. Central Functions.” International Journal of Audiology 20.6 (1981): 510-515.
  5. Ottlinger, Claudia. The Death-motif in the Poetry of Emily Dickinson and Christina Rossetti. New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1996. Bio.

LARRY ZAROFF, MD, PHD, has had five careers following his residency and two years in the U.S. Army Surgical Research Unit. He focused for 29 years on cardiac surgery, including a stint as director of the cardiac surgical research laboratory at Harvard. There his work centered on the development of the demand pacemaker. He spent the next 10 years concentrating on climbing and did a first ascent of Chulu West, a 22,000-foot peak on the Nepal-Tibet border. His third life has been at Stanford, where he received a Ph.D. in 2000, and where he teaches courses in medical humanities. His fourth career has been as a writer for the NYT science section. He now works one day a week as a volunteer family doctor. He has received awards as the outstanding faculty advisor for the Human Biology program and in 2006 was honored as Stanford’s Teacher of the Year.

TONY CHAN is a 4th year biology major undergraduate at Stanford University.  Along with collaborating on research projects, Tony has also worked as a teaching assistant for Dr. Zaroff’s medical humanities classes.  He will be attending medical school next year.

Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 2, Issue 1 – Winter 2010

Winter 2010



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