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Tuesday, December 8, 2015


Emily Dickinson
‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers—...”

“Hope is the Thing with feathers” was first published in 1891.  Without ever actually using the word “bird” but once, Dickinson likens hope itself to a creature of flight.  The language of the first two lines suggests the weightlessness that hope brings with it: the upward motion of the wind ruffling through feathers; the lightness of a tiny bird on its perch, ready at a moment’s notice to flutter away. 
The poem sings of the robust, enduring nature of hope.  The picture of a tiny bird against gargantuan storms and gales reminds the reader of the immense power that even the smallest fragment of hope can hold, no matter how deep in the soul it is buried.  Dickinson contrasts the “chill[y],” “strange” possibilities of the world we all face with the sweetness and warmth of the little bird.
The tone of this poem is quite characteristic of Dickinson.  Although she spent much of her life in seclusion and her experiences were limited, she was a dreamer and many of her poems glowed with promise and possibility.  “’Hope’ is the thing with feathers” simply and eloquently acknowledges the enduring human capability for hope.
Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) was born in Amherst, Massachusetts.  She lived a quiet, secluded life and suffered occasionally from bouts of depression.  Because the world she inhabited was small, her subject matter was limited but focused.  Her garden was one of her greatest passions and appeared often in her writing.  This seclusion also influenced her poetic voice – her poetry sings of the possibility of dreams not yet realized.  Very few of Dickinson’s poems were published when she was alive, and the depth of her poetry was not known until her family discovered her collection of poems after her death.  Today, Dickinson is one of the most appreciated American poets.  She is often admired for her efficient yet brilliant word choice and for defying the rigidity in form that limited many writers before her, though she leans heavily on Common (or hymnal) measure, with its 8-6-8-6 syllables and abab (however slant or subverted) rhyme.
Johnson’s edition of The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson is readily available (including with Amazon) and includes all 1775 of her poems.  Her letters are available in his edition of Final Harvest.

The speaker describes hope as a bird (“the thing with feathers”) that perches in the soul. There, it sings wordlessly and without pause. The song of hope sounds sweetest “in the Gale,” and it would require a terrifying storm to ever “abash the little Bird / That kept so many warm.” The speaker says that she has heard the bird of hope “in the chillest land— / And on the strangest Sea—”, but never, no matter how extreme the conditions, did it ever ask for a single crumb from her.
Like almost all of Dickinson’s poems, “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers—...” takes the form of an iambic trimeter that often expands to include a fourth stress at the end of the line (as in “And sings the tune without the words—”). Like almost all of her poems, it modifies and breaks up the rhythmic flow with long dashes indicating breaks and pauses (“And never stops—at all—”). The stanzas, as in most of Dickinson’s lyrics, rhyme loosely in an ABCB scheme, though in this poem there are some incidental carryover rhymes: “words” in line three of the first stanza rhymes with “heard” and “Bird” in the second; “Extremity” rhymes with “Sea” and “Me” in the third stanza, thus, technically conforming to an ABBB rhyme scheme.
This simple, metaphorical description of hope as a bird singing in the soul is another example of Dickinson’s homiletic style, derived from Psalms and religious hymns. Dickinson introduces her metaphor in the first two lines (“‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers— / That perches in the soul—”), then develops it throughout the poem by telling what the bird does (sing), how it reacts to hardship (it is unabashed in the storm), where it can be found (everywhere, from “chillest land” to “strangest Sea”), and what it asks for itself (nothing, not even a single crumb). Though written after “Success is counted sweetest,” this is still an early poem for Dickinson, and neither her language nor her themes here are as complicated and explosive as they would become in her more mature work from the mid-1860s. Still, we find a few of the verbal shocks that so characterize Dickinson’s mature style: the use of “abash,” for instance, to describe the storm’s potential effect on the bird, wrenches the reader back to the reality behind the pretty metaphor; while a singing bird cannot exactly be “abashed,” the word describes the effect of the storm—or a more general hardship—upon the speaker’s hopes.
Dickinson is using metaphor of a small bird to carry her point that hope stays alive within us despite all of our troubles and, like a small bird that sings in the face of the strongest wind and most powerful storm, hope never asks for anything from us--it is just there to help us when we need it.
In the first stanza, Dickinson says that hope, like the bird singing a tune, doesn't necessarily speak to us in any conventional sense but is always present in us.  Most important from Dickinson's point of view is that hope "springs eternal" (a cliche, but true nonetheless), that is, hope is a permanent fixture of our being that allows us to conquer most of what life throws at us.
The second stanza deals with the power of hope:the more the wind howlsl and the storm rages, the sweeter is the bird's song.  The poet has a hard time imagining a storm so strong that it could overcome the power of the bird's song, so Dickinson would argue that hope, which has kept so many people from despair,  can overcome any suffering.
When Dickinson says in the third stanza that the little bird, despite having to endure "the chillest land" and "strangest sea," has never asked for any payment, Dickinson is simply reminding us of hope's inherent power--it is always there, requires no maintenance, and is strong enough to see us through our troubles.
The metaphorical use of natural elements--in this case, the small bird--is a hallmark of Dickinson's poetic technique.  Often, when Dickinson deals with relatively abstract concepts like hope, love, and death, she uses a concrete image from nature to make more real something that is difficult to "see."

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