Fly in the Ointment

“The Fly in the Ointment of Society”
 
 
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10/29/2017
 

“Since most people viewed insects, as they still do, as insignificant, disagreeable, or dangerous, they had no fellow feelings with insects, no affectionate attitudes to them. They are the nearest to aliens that we encounter” (Perkins 5). David Perkins expressed this opinion in his chapter about the beginnings of animal rights in romantic poetry. William Blake wrote “The Fly” during this time period which was published in the book Songs of Experience (1789-94). “As the title indicates, the subject of the poem is a fly that is swatted away by the hand of the narrator who then compares the value and vagaries of his life and those of the fly” (Overview). “The Fly” has been analyzed many different ways over the years and there has been a lot of speculation over the poem’s speaker or speakers and whether or not the fly actually dies at the end of the poem. In light of the previous analysis of the poem and a new outlook of the poem, this paper will explore the past analysis of the critics with a new approach to the subject of the poem which would include the possibility that Blake could be using the fly as a substitute for the individual and the human hand for society.

In Blake’s original publication “The Fly” was organized into two columns rather than the single column that is typically used today. This particular organization would lend itself to the idea that there are actually two speakers in the poem. “The first three stanzas in one column and the two-stanza rejoinder to the right, the typographical form suggesting a dialogue with two speakers and perhaps implying ‘two laws’” (Simpson). This particular organization of the stanzas allows the poem to be read “from left to right then downwards instead of downwards and then across the page” (Simpson). Reading the poem in this order allows the reader to see the possibility that there are two speakers having a dialogue with each other. If the reader takes the first three stanzas   and then goes across the page to the last two stanzas a visual and subject break can also be found. “The first three stanzas certainly issue from one speaker, as they follow logically and sentimentally; likewise, the fourth and fifth stanzas are a unit, as they make up a single sentence” (Morris). Other critics have claimed that there is only one speaker and that the reason the fourth stanza is different is because the narrator is imagining what the fly would have said in response to him. “Wagenknecht countenances the possibility of a second speaker; he concludes nonetheless that this persona is only a projection of the narrator” (Simpson). The argument of the speakers definitely changes the potential significance of the poem and even the many meanings of the poem. “The meaning of “The Fly” has been widely debated, and division of opinion occurs on the question of whether there is one voice or two in the poem, that is, whether the first three stanzas come from the human and the last two from the fly” (Overview). For the purpose of this paper it will be assumed that there are two speakers in the poem. The first speaker is the narrator represented by the hand and the second speaker is the fly. This paper will also use the perspective of the two column organization that goes from left to right and then downwards that is found in the Simpson article. Using this version of the organizational structure than it stands to reason that the narrator and the fly would be carrying on a dialogue with each other.

To begin the analysis of this poem, it makes sense to start with the narrator or the hand. “Like the fly, this narrator considers, he plays his days away, until he too is struck by “some blind hand”” (Morris). The narrator brushes away the fly but yet he considers himself to be waiting for the same fate. If you consider that society has a habit of brushing off the feelings and beliefs of individuals it becomes clear that the human hand in the first stanza of the poem could represent society. “Insofar as the poem invokes an active and self-conscious reader, any predications made about the poem’s narrator will be seen by the predicating reader to reflect on him- or herself” (Simpson). The narrator is the type of speaker that is easy to relate to which is why the reader thinks of himself or herself. This relative ease the reader senses with the speaker is part of the reason that it becomes possible for the narrator to represent society. “One of the first things noticeable about the poem, then, is an incongruity between tone and subject matter which might well betoken irony” (Stevenson 78). The subject of the poem is the speaker swatting the fly but at the same time it becomes obvious that the poem also concerns the mental state of the narrator. “While the narrator claims that the cause of the fly’s destruction is the impulsiveness that identifies him with it, he also maintains that this identity justifies that destruction by allowing the narrator himself to compensate for the fly’s absence” (Simpson). Society justifies the oppression of individuals when it’s necessary for the greater good. The narrator immediately associates himself with the fly because he understands the needs of the individual just like the narrator immediately connects with the fly. “He thinks the similarity between the fly and himself. He thinks what differs his life from the fly’s” (Rizqi).The reader never knows for sure whether or not the speaker actually kills the fly but “in killing an insect “a man destroys what neither he, nor all the united powers of the world can ever repair”” (Perkins 1). The narrator must believe that he has killed the fly in order for the reader to see the guilt and self-doubt that occurs in the next two stanzas of the poem. Of course the idea of a second speaker leads to a speculation of whether or not the fly responds to the man. “Nevertheless, the first person point of view that is embodied in the use of ‘I’ does not merely refer to the man. ‘I’ also refers to the fly as in the third stanza” (Rizqi).  The use of first person throughout the poem lends the reader to question a second speaker but if you consider the idea that both speakers are having a first person dialogue with each other than it still becomes possible for there to be two separate speakers in the poem.

There is so much speculation about the second speaker or quite possibly the fly himself. The paper assumes the second speaker is the fly and that the fly is engaging in a dialogue with the narrator. “In the very act of perceiving and accepting our physical bodies, we acquiesce in the efforts of our civilization and economy to limit and commodity us; but, as “The Fly” asserts, the condition in which one is entirely an object without subjectivity has no human meaning” (Paananen). The fly is presented as an object in the poem but then once the fly responds to the narrator he is no longer just an object. “The fly confronts the first speaker’s flabby, pretentious Romanticism with an incomprehensible parody of natural philosophy, pointing up the failure of both superficial romance and pure reason” (Morris). If you read the poem left to right and then downwards, than it becomes obvious that the fly is questioning his existence with that of the man in stanza two. “Suppose a fly capable of thinking, would he not be equally puzzled to find out what men where good for?” (Perkins 6). Perkins brings up an interesting thought with this quote because in the absence of responses, humans have no idea what animals are thinking and vice versa. The use of an insect as both the subject and potentially the second speaker during the romantic time period offered poets the opportunity to support the oppressed. The idea of the insect representing the oppressed is what led to the idea that the fly could represent the oppression of the individual within society as a whole. Individuals are not always oppressed by society but they tend to have their ideas and beliefs oppressed for the greater good. “Fly thinks nothing in acting since it is an animal. It has no thought. It only has instinct” (Riqzi). Perkins suggests that “insects offered writers the largest opportunity for instructive, provocative, prejudice-dispelling displays of sympathy, and an abundant discourse availed at them” (Perkins 5).  Perkins yet again offers an ideal that could easily be transferred from the fly to a repressed individual or group of people. Blake used a fly which is not a desirable creature but he gave him the ability to think and respond to a human within his poem. To die or not to die is the next question when looking at the fly.

The idea that the fly in the poem died is one that has been discussed many times. “Whether we read the first stanza so that the fly dies or whether we read the fly deflecting, or at least escaping, the thoughtless hand, the remaining stanzas can provide a narrator who postulates an identification with an actual or potential victim only to question it” (Simpson). It would be easy for any reader to quickly form their own opinion about whether or not the fly dies after the first stanza. The fly is very obviously swatted away by the hand but that is the extent of the literal explanation for the fly’s fate. If the reader assumes that the fly survives that it makes the questions in stanza two much more meaningful. “If we assume that the fly survives, then the second-person address in these two questions has a real destination denied if we make the opposite assumption that the fly is dead” (Simpson). This paper has taken the chance of interpreting the poem through the more unusual organizational model so it stands to reason that it would be assumed that the fly in fact survives being swatted away by the hand. The speaker assumes that the fly would not be happy or joyful in their life but as an insect without human emotions the fly doesn’t suffer from the same guilt or self-doubt that the human speaker does in the first stanza. “Whether “happy” means “fortunate” or “joyful,” the word contradicts the first speaker’s speculation: the fly is no victim of circumstance, but fortunate; it is not suffering, but joyful. It is a natural creature, and living or dying, thinking or not thinking, are all the same to it” (Morris). The fly is actually characterized by Morris as a fortunate creature that is happy with its existence. “If, however, the fly is allowed to survive and even win the encounter, the narrator’s attempt to identify with it becomes an ennobling personification instead of an effort at self-justification by replacing the victim” (Simpson). Although it would be easy to say the fly died, it is a much better result if the fly survives because then Blake is truly exhibiting the oppressed overcoming their oppressor. If the fly survives than it stands to reason that the individual will survive despite whatever oppression they may endure through society. “While the narrator who kills the fly and the one who does not may be mutually exclusive, the destructive narrator is not incompatible with the one who then doubts his or her identification with the victim even as she or he proposes it” (Simpson). In order to truly understand the nature of Blake’s poem it becomes necessary to look at the way Blake himself saw the world.

William Blake definitely wrote poetry that challenged the political status quo during the romantic time period. He wrote poetry using animals and insects which allowed him an opportunity to highlight the lives and situations for the oppressed people and groups at the time. “Natural instincts, emotions and innocence like essential ingredients that constitute the true identity marks of human beings, Blake aspires that these be given a free hand”(Parray). Blake even wrote poetry that highlighted issues with slavery and the need to abolish it during this time. “Whatever one might feel about his work — or understand about it — there can be no doubt that he is seeing beyond the usual. He taps into something that is his guide, and he must follow. His poetry “recalls his vision” (Gildroy). The fly is a great example of the vision that Blake saw and expressed through his poetry. Considering the fact that Blake pursued his visions though his work, it really isn’t a stretch to believe that Blake could have been writing “The Fly” to symbolize how the individual could be oppressed by society. “He has blazed his own intimate path into his poem. It permeates the walls between the worldly and the spiritual, and offers up a vivid, living experience of this intensely living consciousness. We feel the presence of his life and work and spirit” (Gildroy). Blake truly let his readers into his thoughts and beliefs through his work. Blake left us a legacy in the messages of his work and the fact “that his poems could be understood as a mapping of his consciousness, his vision, if you will, along the way” (Gildroy). He knew that people wouldn’t necessarily be affectionate when it came to insects but he still chose to use them in his poem. “Flies, the most familiar and annoying of England’s insects, evoked astonishing feats of sympathy along with some ordinary ones” (Perkins 6). His ability to create sympathy for an unlikely creature using his incredible vision makes it even more probable that the insect represents the individual against society in his poem. “Blake takes us in a profound thought of life by making comparison of human’s life to a fly’s life” (Rizqi). In this comparison Blake allows the reader see political and social positions from a different perspective.

The one factor that hasn’t been explored through this paper is the lines of the poem and their meanings. The first stanza deals primarily with the swatting hand but that action leads to “the theme of vulnerability to sudden misfortune” which is found in the rest of the poem (Overview). In stanza three the reader sees the narrator comparing himself to the fly. “He recognizes he could just as easily meet his end by the blind hand of God or fate, by some thoughtless act like the one the fly encounters, even describing himself as having a wing” (Overview). The fact that narrator compares himself to the fly seems so strange when you first read the poem but the reader soon discovers that it is the narrator’s guilt over the fly that brings forth the comparison. “For I dance and drink & sing, till some blind hand shall brush my wing” (Blake 9-12). It is interesting the way the narrator describes his actions because the reader would never expect him to talk about a fly dancing and drinking or a human having a wing. One of the more significant arguments in the poem itself is found in the fourth stanza. “It is the only stanza that does not use the first person. Many critics assert that the narrator is finished speaking, and the fly then gives a two-stanza response” (Overview). The ideas presented here setup the paper’s argument that the fly represents the individual and the narrator represents society. “If thought is life and strength & breath, and the want of thought is death;” (Blake 13-16). These lines start describing the absence of thought as an actual death which is not what would normally be considered death. Society as a whole turns into an element of oneness that can cause people to stop actually thinking for themselves which according to Blake’s poem could be a type of death. Using this logic, it is safe to say that the fly could easily represent the individual that refuses to conform to the status quo. In the last stanza of the poem the fly respond with the following lines, “then am I a happy fly, if I live, or if I die” (Blake 17-20). In these lines it almost seems like the fly is truly asking a rhetorical question of the reader but it seems more likely that he is just pointing out that the absence of thought would not make him unhappy since he is a fly. “Blake believed that imagination can transcend mortality, so if thought is life, the fly is always happy because it is confident of the continuance of life through thought or imagination and, therefore, does not fear death” (Overview).  The idea that individuals won’t give up thought despite the society oppressing them relates to the fly and his continual happiness whether he’s alive or dead. The poem brings up many different ideas but the most important aspect of the poem should be the idea that people can’t let the small stuff impact them so much that they miss what is important within each person.

This paper has focused on the idea that William Blake could have intended to make the fly represent the individual at a time when many individuals were being repressed by the changing society. “He longed for the harmonious unity between good and evil, but this shouldn’t be viewed as something devilish, rather he wished that what is generally believed to be evil by the social, political and religious bodies as evil is just a hypothetical construct and not something really destructive that needs to be suppressed and controlled” (Parray). Although previous critics focused more on whether or not there were two speakers, the life or death of the fly or even the various themes and language used in the poem, that doesn’t change the fact that no one truly knows what Blake intended when he wrote “The Fly.”

 

 

 

Works Cited

Gildroy, Doreen. “Poetry and Mysticism: Part Three.” American Poetry Review, vol. 40, no. 3, May/Jun2011, pp. 43-44. EBSCOhost,ezproxy.shsu.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lfh&AN=60232281&site=eds-live&scope=site.

Morris, G. S. “Blake’s the FLY.” Explicator, vol. 65, no. 1, Fall2006, pp. 16-18. EBSCOhost,ezproxy.shsu.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lfh&AN=23653916&site=eds-live&scope=site.

“Overview: ‘The Fly’.” Poetry for Students, edited by Sara Constantakis, vol. 34, Gale, 2010. Literature Resource Center, go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=LitRC&sw=w&u=j220915001&v=2.1&it=r&id=GALE%7CH1430007098&asid=6365f07c83820854f0cfae4d46fc56a0. Accessed 24 Sept. 2017.

Paananen, Victor N. “Songs of Innocence and of Experience.” William Blake, Updated ed., Twayne Publishers, 1996, pp. 72-89. Twayne’s English Authors Series 202. Twayne’s Authors Seriesgo.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=G-Twayne&sw=w&u=j220915001&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CCX3001500021&it=r. Accessed 3 Oct. 2017.

Parray, Ashaq Hussain. “Songs of innocence and experience–a trans-historical humanitarian discourse.” Language In India, July 2013, p. 136+. Academic OneFile, go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?p=AONE&sw=w&u=j220915001&v=2.1&id=GALE%7CA339118612&it=r&asid=c6ff2ad2c60ba1d7f100d6edf45b6f0d. Accessed 7 Oct. 2017.

Perkins, David. Romanticism and Animal Rights. Cambridge University Press, 2003. New York

Rizqi, Muhammad A. “-INTRODUCTION TO POETRY- AN ANALYSIS OF WILLIAM BLAKE’S THE FLY .” 2009.

Simpson, Michael. “Who Didn’t Kill Blake’s Fly: Moral Law and the Rule of Grammar in ‘Songs of Experience.’ (William Blake)(Rhetoric and Poetics).” Style, no. 2, 1996, p. 220. EBSCOhost, ezproxy.shsu.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsglr&AN=edsgcl.19175941&site=eds-live&scope=site.

Stevenson, W. (1968). Artful irony in blake’s “the fly”. Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 10(1), 77. Retrieved from https://ezproxy.shsu.edu/login?url=https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy.shsu.edu/docview/1305356776?accountid=7065

 

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