Fly as a Fly: William Blake’s “The Fly”

Humans, as a species, are subject to making decisions and taking actions without thought. In William Blake’s poem, The Fly, he addresses this fact of life as a human and delves into the philosophical issues that arise from one action in particular, the swatting away of a fly. Blake takes the simple careless action of brushing a fly away and universalizes it into a ponderation of purpose, function, and reason. It is not until the fourth stanza of The Fly that Blake ultimately posits his notions of thought and life. In the end, Blake seems to arrive at a conclusion that is of deep insight, that causes the reader to reflect on the way in which they evaluate their existence, that conclusion being, that whether one desires knowledge, or whether one has it, that it is how one uses said knowledge that makes their life a happy one.

Blake begins by delineating the actual action of the swatting of the fly away. He begins his poem with the very adjective “little” in reference to the fly (Blake 1). With the very first line, Blake is diminishing the stature of the fly in relation to a human. He continues and characterizes his hand that physically does the deed of swatting as a “thoughtless hand” (Blake 3). Blake could have used a plethora of other adjectives in this instance, but his use of the word “thoughtless” tells the reader there was absolutely no purposeful motivation behind his decision and action to brush the fly way. The action was completely and utterly devoid of critical thought, ergo “thoughtless.”

After the brushing away of the fly is this moment in time in which the realization of the swatter’s action comes to the forefront of thought. Blake writes, “Am not I a fly like thee?” (Blake 5-6). Here, Blake is appealing to this idea that humans are but the annoyance a fly is to a human to some larger entity, to something bigger than humans. This point brings about two lines of thought. One thought being this idea that there is some similarity between the human and the fly, some type of shared quality. This thought leads to a line written by William Shakespeare within King Lear, “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; They kill us for their sport” (Shakespeare 4.1.38-39). This line refers to humans being to the gods as flies are to humans. It posits the thought that humans might just be the exact identical annoyance a fly provides to humans for something bigger, i.e. the gods. Blake carries on within this stanza to finish by asking the fly if it is not human like him. Blake here directly compares humans to flies and forces the reader to juxtaposition the two and think critically as to what it is exactly that makes a human different than a fly.

Blake looks into this further in the next stanza by listing some of the normal activities done by man, such as dancing, drinking, and singing. Blake then alludes back to humans serving the same function as a fly to a human, to something larger. He does so by saying that the human engages in dancing, drinking, etc, living their lives, until “some blind hand shall brush [their] “wing” (Blake 11-12). Just as the fly is brushed away, so is the human. The human is susceptible to the same interference of life as the fly is. This line is stated in the first person and gives the reader a sense that this person who has swatted the fly away is identifying quite deeply with the wrongdoing within his action, as well as the fly itself. The fly and the narrator are not that different. The narrator basically states that he also is obstructed by impediments within his daily life. Another interesting piece of this stanza is the fact that the narrator calls the hand that brushes his wing a “blind hand” (Blake 11). This is in contrast to the “thoughtless hand” of the narrator’s that swatted the fly in the opening stanza. The word thoughtless implies that there was no pondering or justification that went into the action, but the word “blind” gives the sense that not only was the action motiveless and careless. The use of the term “blind hand” also points to the fact that the hand was devoid of its ability to perceive future consequences for the action taken.

It is at this point in the poem that the true delve into the philosophy begins. Stanzas one, two, and three “follow logically and sentimentally,” however, the fourth and fifth stanzas are “a unit, as they make up a single sentence” (Morris 16). Here the reader notices a change in the tonality of the poem and the beginning of somewhat of an “impersonal tone” (Morris 16). The fourth stanza states that…

“If thought is life,

and strength and breath,

and the want,

of thought is death” (Blake 13-16).

The first line of this stanza poses some philosophical qualms for the reader. It forces the reader to make an assumption of what Blake means by thought, what exactly his idea of “thought” is. If Blake subscribes to the Platonic idea of knowledge as the greatest good for which all should aim then Blake most certainly is concerned with the “form of the good” (Phaedo) Plato discusses how to attain knowledge, the greatest good, by knowing the form of the good. By knowing this form of the good one can determine how to live the wise life and make the best decisions. If one assumes that Blake is follower of Plato then it would make sense with what follows when Blake says that “If thought is life, and strength and breath,” for if one possesses the knowledge of the form of the good, then one has the knowledge to choose those things which would give the strength in a variety of senses, both physical and psychological (Blake 13-14). As for the ending statement of “the want of thought is death,” this seems to delineate the dichotomy between an active attempt to procure the knowledge of the form of the good and a life of a sloth-like existence.

However, if Blake is not a Platonic theorist, then what else could Blake possibly mean when he states that “thought is life”? (Blake 13).  Either “there is no logic to his musings,” or there is something being missed (Morris 16). If Blake subscribes to Aristotelian philosophy then “thought” might be seen as purpose or function, in which case Aristotle called happiness (Nicomachean Ethics 10097a-b). But, Aristotle’s happiness is not the common type of happiness used. Aristotle defined happiness as virtuous activity of the soul (Nicomachean Ethics 1098a). However, Aristotle arrives at this conclusion by comparing nature to humans to derive what the particular function of humans is (Nicomachean Ethics 1098a). So, that means to say that Aristotle simply looked at nature, i.e. animals and plants to find out what defining characteristic was unique to humans and that one thing that he ended with would be that which embodied the function of humans. The issue then is that Blake is comparing the similarities of the fly and humans and as such, blatantly contradicts Aristotle, in his definition of human function as unique to humans alone.

If Blake is not a follower of Plato or Aristotle, then that still leaves a void as to his meaning of “thought is life.” Possibly, Blake might be referring to a Socratic line of thought. For instance, Plato said of Socrates that “the unexamined life is not worth living” (Apology 38a). If Blake was subscribing to this line of thought then it might be plausible that “thought” would be the examination of life and the critical analysis of its progression. But, that does leave a question as to if the human and the fly are but the same, how the fly would have the cognitive power to think critically on its existence and decision making. It would appear that Blake’s possibility of identifying with this statement is impossible as well.

Blake might have meant by saying that “thought is life,” that it is important to live a life well thought out and constantly examined. He quite possibly could have been advocating caution and due diligence in every decision made. This feeling might have derived from his encounter with a fly. This understanding would open the last part of stanza four up to easier interpretation as well, in that when he states that “the want of thought is death” (Blake 15-16). The “want,” meaning not only the desire, but he omits any diction that indicates action. Therefore, Blake is saying that one must not only want thought and desire knowledge and a life well-lived, but act on those desires. It is only a life well-lived, if the action is realized.

The fifth and final stanza leaves the reader with a slight feeling of befuddlement. The fifth stanza states…

“Then am I

A happy fly,

If I live

Or if I die” (Blake 17-20).

This stanza and the fourth stanza may be even taken and looked at separately from the poem itself. The poem says nothing of happiness and suddenly Blake, in the final lines of the poem, brings about this notion of happiness. The structure of the statement, that being “then am I  / a happy fly,” makes it such that the reader understands the narrator is referring to himself as a fly now. Though Blake has juxtaposed humans and flies and has shown them similar in various ways, it is not feasible for the narrator to take on the entity of a fly. It is also a mystery as to why Blake would stress thought and its importance to much in the stanza prior and then seem to collapse his own assertions by stating that whether he has though or not, he will remain happy. However, this might be Blake’s attempt to align with the Epicurean school of thought in that Epicurean’s believed pleasure was the highest good, desirable above all others and they believed that this pleasure they spoke of was derived from living a life in accord with nature. They saw living in accord with nature and virtuous activity. Therefore, if Blake’s entire goal was to bring about critical thought on the fact that humans share this place with nature, flies included. In addition, if humans share this place with nature, then we should live in accord with it, because there is always a bigger fish in the progression of nature and predators.

It appears as though there are quite a few avenues for interpretation upon this poem, The Fly by William Blake. Even delving into the great ancient philosophers of old could not bring about a solid understanding of Blake’s meaning behind the poem. Blake’s juxtaposition of humans and flies is intriguing and beholds some beneficial critical thought. Blake’s idea of “thought is life” is quite grey in interpretation. After comparing it to the views of Plato and Aristotle, it seemed as though it would never be understood, until some pondering. If Blake said that “thought is life” in an attempt to say that to think and engage in the sport of critical thought is what makes life worth living and a good one at that, then that would open up the rest of Blake’s poem for interpretation. The idea of flies and humans not being so different and that every action has unforeseen consequences are both things that are well worth pondering. Blake composed a highly complex and intriguing poem focused on engaging the reader into the same intellectual exercises he states are what life is all about within the piece itself.

Works Cited

Hutchinson, D. S. Complete Works. Ed. John M. Cooper. Boston: Hackett Company, Incorporated, 1997.

Aristotle., and Hugh Tredennick. The Nicomachean Ethics (Penguin Classics). New York: Penguin Classics, 2003.

Blake, William, and William Golding. The Complete Poetry & Prose of William Blake. New York: Anchor, 1997.

Morris, G. S. “Blake’s THE FLY.” Explicator 65.1 (Fall2006 2006): 16-18.
Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Main Library University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ. 22 Apr. 2009 <http://ezproxy.library.arizona.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.co
m/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=23653916&site=ehost-live>.

“ponderation.” Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary. MICRA, Inc. 19 Apr. 2009. <Dictionary.com http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/ponderation>.

Shakespeare, William. King Lear (Barnes & Noble Shakespeare). New York: Barnes & Noble, 2007.

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Comments
2 Responses to “Fly as a Fly: William Blake’s “The Fly””
  1. Emmanuel says:

    wow!!!! what an amazing analysis of ‘the fly’. I really have a long way to go. Please, what poems will you recommend I study as a beginner.

    • Thank you so very much. Your words are very kind. As for suggestions on poetry, it is really up to you. The best thing about poetry is that it can correspond to your interests. I happen to be a big Blake fan, as well as a big fan of Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson and many more. Thanks for reading and please let me know if you want a little more direction in your poetry search.

      Best,
      Q

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