“Hope” Is the Thing with Feathers
“Hope” Is the Thing with Feathers
“Hope” Is the Thing with Feathers
Emily Dickinson 1861
“‘Hope’ Is the Thing With Feathers” is believed to have been written in 1861. It was initially published posthumously in the second collection of Dickinson’s work, Poems by Emily Dickinson, second series, in 1891. In this poem, “Hope,” an abstract word meaning desire or trust, is described metaphorically as having the characteristics of a “bird,” a tangible, living creature.
The word “bird” is rich with connotation. Birds are often viewed as free and self-reliant, or as symbols of spirituality. The bird in this poem is courageous and persevering, for it continues to share its song under even the most difficult conditions. By describing “hope” in terms of this bird, Dickinson creates a lovely image of the virtue of human desire.
Dickinson was born in Amherst, Massachusetts, in 1830 and lived there all her life. Her grandfather was the founder of Amherst College, and her father, Edward Dickinson, was a lawyer who served as the treasurer of the college. He also held various political offices. Her mother, Emily Norcross Dickinson, was a quiet and frail woman. Dickinson went to primary school for four years and then attended Amherst Academy from 1840 to 1847 before spending a year at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary. Her education was strongly influenced by Puritan religious beliefs, but Dickinson did not accept the teachings of the Unitarian church attended by her family and remained agnostic throughout her life. Following the completion of her education, Dickinson lived in the family home with her parents and younger sister, Lavinia, while her elder brother Austin and his wife, Susan, lived next door. She began writing verse at an early age, practicing her craft by rewriting poems she found in books, magazines, and newspapers. During a trip to Philadelphia in the early 1850s, Dickinson fell in love with a married minister, the Reverend Charles Wadsworth; her disappointment in love may have brought about her subsequent withdrawal from society. Dickinson experienced an emotional crisis of an undetermined nature in the early 1860s. Her traumatized state of mind is believed to have inspired her to write prolifically: in 1862 alone she is thought to have composed more than three hundred poems. In that same year, Dickinson initiated a correspondence with Thomas Wentworth Higginson, the literary editor of the Atlantic Monthly magazine. Over the years Dickinson sent nearly one hundred of her poems for his criticism, and he became a sympathetic adviser and confidant, but he never published any of her poems. Dickinson’s isolation further increased when her father died unexpectedly in 1874 and her mother suffered a stroke that left her an invalid. Dickinson and her sister provided her constant care until her death in 1882. Dickinson was diagnosed in 1886 as having Bright’s disease, a kidney dysfunction that resulted in her death in May of that year.
“Hope” is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—
And sweetest—in the Gale—is heard—
And sore must be the storm—
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm—
I’ve heard it in the chillest land—
And on the strangest Sea—
Yet, never, in Extremity,
It asked a crumb—of Me.
One of the uses of quotation marks is to alert the reader to a special or unusual word or use of a
word. Dickinson rarely uses this technique, but when she does it is often in attempting to define certain abstract words. Here, the word “Hope,” which is traditionally defined as a feeling that what is wanted will happen, is described in a metaphor. In line one, “Hope” is not directly called a bird. Instead, the poem’s speaker calls it “the thing with feathers.” The use of the definite article, “the,” indicates that this bird is uniquely identifiable because it is the one “that perches in the soul.” The verb “perches” is typically used to describe a bird’s settling or resting after alighting. Here, the resting-place is the soul, or the spiritual entity of a human being. This is a figurative way of saying that people carry their hope in that part of themselves which has no physical or material reality, but which is the center of thought and will.
Songbirds are famous for their beautiful songs. Although there are no “words” to be understood, people relate to and are deeply affected by bird songs. In fact, the sound of birds singing renews many people’s sense of possibility and wonder. On a spring day, the sound seems everlasting, regardless of the conditions outside. “Hope” shares many of these characteristics of the songbird, for it endures
- The Belle of Amherst, videocassette, New York: Ifex Films, 1976. Portrays America’s foremost woman poet through an examination of her writings and observations of her life and family. Adapted from the play by William Luce.
- Emily Dickinson, videocassette, Voices and Visions Series, vol. 3, New York: Intellimation, 1988.
- Songs compact disc, Qualiton Imports, KTC 1100, 1990. Musical adaptation of Dickinson’s work by Aaron Copeland.
under all circumstances and comforts the human spirit.
When people hear a bird continue to sing even during fierce winds, it is comforting to know that these brave little creatures are not afraid. Likewise, when life is most difficult, hope is an even greater solace. It would take a “sore,” or distressingly intense storm, to “abash,” or upset, the tranquillity of the little “Bird,” which is mentioned by name for the first time on line seven. Like “Hope,” the bird’s courage and perseverance in the face of difficult circumstances is heartening. Like the bird, “Hope” “kept so many warm” by offering a way to look beyond the harsh reality to the promise of something better to come.
This courageous little bird is always there for the poem’s speaker, even under the most dire of circumstances. For example, it continues to sing beautifully even in conditions of extreme cold and barrenness. It accompanies the speaker “on the strangest sea,” a setting that could be lonely and dangerous. However, even in moments of “Extremity,” or extreme necessity and great risk, the little bird has never asked the speaker for anything in return. Likewise, “Hope” is a joyous gift with no conditions or strings attached to it. It dwells in the soul and serves humanity selflessly, if only they wish to recognize it.
For reasons that remain unclear, Emily Dickinson experienced an emotional crisis in the early 1860s and secluded herself from the world. Some scholars suggest that disappointment in love led to her withdrawal. Dickinson turned thirty in December 1860, and she had not yet married. Aside from the pain she experienced as a result of unsuccessful romances, the failure to marry was likely especially distressing for her. In Dickinson’s time, the only avenue open to women was through marriage; unmarried women were essentially without social position, were in certain respects outcasts. Other scholars argue that Dickinson’s inability to get her poems published led to her withdrawal. All agree that as Dickinson turned away from the world she turned toward her poetry. She is thought to have composed more than three hundred poems in 1862 alone. Through her poetry she explored the inner workings of her self, her heart, her mind, and her soul. The poems of this period talk of suffering and healing, of death and immortality, of despair and hope.
In “‘Hope’ is the Thing with Feathers,” Dickinson explores her identity in relation to hope, personifying it as a bird. In Christian imagery, “hope” is often figured as a white dove. In the first stanza Dickinson expands this image, imagining the bird sitting in one’s soul, singing a wordless tune that is eternal. In the second stanza she moves outward from the enclosed space of the soul, placing the bird in the wider world, amid a raging storm. It does more than merely survive, however; its song seems to rise above the noise of the gale—“sweetest … is heard”—and, we are told, it would take an extremely terrible storm to overwhelm (“abash”) the bird. Moreover, it not only survives itself, it is able to keep others warm. (One envisions a mother bird brooding on her chicks.)
In the third stanza Dickinson introduces a spectator (“I”) who sees the bird from outside (or, more precisely, an auditor who hears it). This completes an evolution in the image: first depicted as something within one, in the soul, it is then shown as operating in the world at large, almost as a force of nature, triumphing over storms. Now it is presented as so completely outside of the self that one may, as it were, observe it objectively. Dickinson emphasizes this change by shifting to a past tense. (The first two stanzas are for the most part in the present tense.) In this stanza there are two figures: the bird and the narrator—the “I”—who hears it. The narrator has clearly seen hardships, has endured frigid lands and foreign seas, and, she states, has encountered the bird there—has found hope amid the most desperate circumstances.
The concluding two lines, beginning with “Yet,” imply a contrast or a contradiction—but to what has not been stated. The implication is that the bird has given the narrator something yet has “never … asked a crumb” in return, even in the worst “Extremity.” Hope is a gift that arrives unlooked-for in times of great need and seeks nothing in return.
The poem begins by depicting hope as something that lives inside one, as part of the self, “perching” in the soul, and it ends by showing it as something outside, separate from the self, asking nothing “of Me.” This is a paradox. Hope dwells in the human soul but is encountered in wild, alien places. It is part of the self but is independent of it, is free of human control.
Nature and Its Meaning
In “‘Hope’ Is the Thing with Feathers,” nature is divided—or rather, Dickinson employs images from nature for contrasting purposes. In this poem nature is both beneficent and destructive. The division is made between the image of the bird and the images of threatening storms and hostile environments. This split corresponds to a separation between inside and outside, between interior and exterior spaces.
The opening stanza introduces the image of a bird, representing hope. Although it is not explicitly stated, the sense here is of an interior space. The bird “perches in the soul,” which is commonly pictured as existing inside of us. The soul is its nest (or perhaps a birdcage), a confined, secure place. The phrase in the second stanza—“That kept so many warm”—suggests a brooding hen, emphasizing the safety of a nest. The images of the bird evoke nature as a positive, nurturing force—as is fitting for a symbol representing hope.
A series of words in the second and third stanzas—“Gale,” “sore,” “storm,” “abash,” “chillest,” “strangest,” “Extremity”—combine to evince a different side of nature, as dangerous and threatening.
Topics for Further Study
- Because Dickinson was fascinated with riddles, she played with them in her poetry. In the first quatrain, “hope” is described as a tiny bird. The rest of the poem gives more “clues” as to “hope’s” identity until, by the end of the poem, we have a much better understanding of it. But in the last line, she seems to begin another riddle about “Me.” Describe who you think “Me” is.
- Take a concept that means a lot to you, such as “pride,” “love,” “joy,” etc., and find an animal that you think could be used as an example of it. List qualities you think the idea and the animal have in common. Then write a sales pitch promoting the animal as the official spokesperson of the idea.
- Many of Emily Dickinson’s poems are punctuated with the dash, instead of with commas or periods to slow or stop a thought. Why did she choose this form of punctuation? Discuss the different ways dashes, commas, and periods affect the reading of a poem.
Here the sense is of an exterior space, wild and unprotected. In this harsh setting, Dickinson tells us, the tune the bird sings is “sweetest,” suggesting both that it is the most comforting thing heard amid the noise of the storm, and that, while the tune is sweet when it is heard while one is safe, it is sweetest when one is in danger. Hope, then, is the most comforting emotion one feels when beset with troubles, and, while hope is good to have at all times, it is especially so at times of adversity.
If we look at “‘Hope’ Is the Thing with Feathers” in terms of Dickinson’s life, we can perhaps read a commentary on her withdrawal from the world. Dickinson turned inward into herself and shut out the world, and in this poem she suggests that inside it is peaceful and secure, while outside (out in the world) it is hostile and dangerous. By turning inward she discovered hope—hope that could support and sustain her when she was confronted with the harsh world outside.
Written in three quatrains, or four-line verses, “‘Hope’ Is the Thing with Feathers” is patterned after the alternate eight- and six-syllable iambic line scheme, called common meter, found in many nineteenth century English hymns. This simple, adaptable hymn meter allowed Dickinson the latitude to experiment with language, imagery and stylistic surprise. In the first line of this poem, for instance, she accents her key opening word, “Hope” with quotation marks, then surprises the reader with an unlikely comparison of that virtue to “the thing with feathers,” a bird. And she does it in a four-foot line with one syllable missing. In natural scansion, this line has an accented single-syllable foot, an anapest and an iamb followed by an unattached, unstressed final syllable, or catalectic foot:
“Hope” / is the thing / with feath / ers
The poem is rhymed in the second and fourth lines of the first stanza, in alternate lines in stanza two and in the last three lines of stanza three. “Heard/bird,” “storm/warm,” and “Sea/me” are exact rhymes. “Soul/all” is an example of consonance, or off rhyme; the vowel sounds are different, but not the following consonants. And “Extremity” in stanza three is a vowel rhyme, with the same long “e” sound in its ending as “See” and “Me.” The repetition of “That” and “And” in the line openers and the stream of “s” sounds running through all three verses enhance the poem’s rhyme. In the third stanza, Dickinson shortens the superlative “chilliest” to “Chillest” to maintain the line’s iambic meter and to echo the rhythmic pattern and second-syllable rhymes of two other superlatives, “sweetest” and “strangest.” “Chillest” also suggests a degree of cold beyond “chilliest.”
Dickinson’s capitalization and punctuation in this poem are inconsistent. No internal nouns, not even “soul,” are capitalized in the first stanza; “Gale” and “Bird” are capitalized in the second stanza, but not “storm”; and three of the end-words, “Sea,” “Extremity,” and “Me,” are capitalized in stanza three, but not “land.” Dashes mark end stops and internal rhythmic pauses, except in the poem’s penultimate line which is punctuated with three commas. These inconsistencies support the argument that Dickinson’s eccentric capitalization and punctuation may have been habits of handwriting rather than devices for emphasis and pacing.
The decade of the 1860s was a period of upheaval. As Dickinson was suffering her emotional crisis and beginning to withdraw into seclusion, America was experiencing the social, political, and military crisis of the Civil War, which broke out in April of 1861. In literature, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote some of their finest works. One of the most important cultural influences of the period was the literary and philosophical movement known as Transcendentalism. Founded by the poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson in the 1830s, Transcendentalism was a system based on belief in the essential unity of nature and the inherent goodness of humanity. In his Transcendentalist manifesto, Nature, published in 1836, Emerson explained that God was everywhere present throughout nature and by means of the human faculty called “higher Reason,” “Mind,” or “Spirit,”—distinguished from traditional notions of reason and logic—one could communicate directly with God. As God and nature were one, communing with nature and speaking with God were the same. Henry David Thoreau, whose book Walden (1854) remains highly influential to this day, was a follower of Transcendentalism.
Although it was greatly influenced by similar movements in England and Germany, the American Transcendentalist Movement strongly encouraged the development of a uniquely American culture, based on indigenous elements. The Transcendentalists also advocated social, religious, and political reform. They supported the Free Religion and abolitionist movements, and they helped establish various utopian societies.
Although Dickinson was never affiliated with the Transcendentalists, the movement’s influence was pervasive. Moreover, Emerson lived in Concord, Massachusetts, fewer than one hundred miles from Dickinson’s Amherst. He is also known to have visited Dickinson’s brother, Austin, and his wife at their home. Dickinson’s presentation of nature in “‘Hope’ Is the Thing with Feathers,” particularly its depiction of the bird’s beneficent effects, shows affinities to Transcendentalist views. The poem’s introspection and emphasis on inner goodness are entirely in keeping with Transcendentalist tenets as well. With this poem, Dickinson, as did the Transcendentalists, offered a hopeful view of humanity even as America was sliding into the darkness and despair of the Civil War.
Compare & Contrast
- 1861: The germ theory of disease by Louis Pasteur is published. This is one example of nineteenth-century advances in the scientific explanation of nature and the universe. “‘Hope’ Is the Thing with Feathers” offers a different method for seeing and understanding the world, as Emily Dickinson uses poetry, with its emphasis on sensibility and subjective experience, as an instrument to study nature at hand.
Today: The scientific view of the universe dominates Western thought. Astrophysicists such as Stephen Hawking study “black holes,” or regions in space where gravity is so powerful that no matter or electromagnetic radiation (including light) can escape. The theory of “black holes,” once radical and awe-inspiring, is now a popular figure of speech.
- 1861: At age 23, clothier John Wanamaker establishes the country’s first fixed-price men’s clothing store, ending the practice of bartering between customer and merchant. Within ten years, Wanamaker’s becomes the country’s largest men’s retail store.
Today: Although “haggling” for a price is not customary in America, street vendors set up shop outside large department stores in many U.S. cities, employing practices common in the rest of the world, in which prices are agreed upon through a process of negotiation between buyer and seller.
- 1861: The novel Silas Marner is published in England. Dickinson greatly admired its author, Mary Ann Evans. Evans was a rarity for the time: a woman who was successful in an arena that was dominated by men; however, in order to succeed, she had to assume a male pseudonym—George Eliot. Dickinson herself was less successful in the struggle against male bias, as editors to whom she submitted her poems rewrote them, returned them, or suggested that she stop writing altogether. The vast majority of her poems remained arranged in packets and locked in a bureau until after her death. She succeeding in publishing only seven poems during her life.
Today: Women and minorities no longer write under assumed names unless they so choose, and Emily Dickinson is acclaimed as one of the finest poets America has ever produced. However, with the rise of movies, television, computer games, and other forms of entertainment, the market for poetry and literary fiction has dwindled. Major magazines, such as the New Yorker and Harper’s publish less and less fiction and poetry, and there are fewer of the “little” literary magazines to fill this publishing gap.
- 1861: Although Emily Dickinson, like many women of her time, had the opportunity to study beyond primary school, her first responsibility was to family, whether it was through marriage and child-rearing or through caring for her own parents and siblings. Dickinson’s father, Edward, expected her to return to the proper “sphere” of the home after she left Mount Holyoke Seminary, and she resented this role. Increasingly, Dickinson “invented” her own greatness with the power of her poetry in a household that did not respect intellectual pursuits for women.
Today: More choices are available to women now than ever before in American history. Women are waiting longer to marry and have children, if at all; and, increasingly, they live with their prospective mates before they do so. Most women now have the freedom to pursue a career. However, in many cases their responsibilities to home and family have not lessened. Women are often faced with the competing demands of work and home. Moreover, with the increasing number of divorces, single-parent families have become common, and most mothers work outside of the home out of economic necessity. At the same time, with medical advances and lengthening lifespans, many women are caring for their own elderly parents.
“‘Hope’ Is the Thing with Feathers” has often been analyzed as one of the most famous examples of Dickinson’s “definition” poems. David Porter, in a chapter of his book The Art of Emily Dickinson’s Early Poetry, refers to the poem as an example of a “word trick.” According to Porter, Dickinson of ten uses devices such as “disorienting the reader’s expectations by substituting an abstract word for an expected concrete word,” or reversing the substitution by “placing a specific image in the syntax where an abstraction is anticipated.” “‘Hope’ Is the Thing with Feathers” is an excellent example of the latter device. Porter believes that this “word trick” device is very effective because it “expands contextual possibilities, increases the reader’s awareness, and deepens the emotional experience [Dickinson’s] poems recreate.”
The literary biographer Cynthia Griffin Wolff discusses the poem in her Emily Dickinson. Wolff points out that the “spent terminology of Christian myth permeates [Dickinson’s] generally secular verse.” Wolff goes on to explain that “Christ and the ‘Hope’ that He gave to the world were repeatedly figured in traditional emblems as a bird.” However, Wolff argues that nothing in the poem suggests that Dickinson was referring to Christ; in fact, it is more likely that she was writing about “every human’s potential for music and poetry, brave stays against the brooding dark.”
A third critic, Jane Donahue Eberwein, takes a slightly different view of the poem in her book Strategies of Limitation. According to Eberwein, this poem, like Dickinson’s other definition poems, illustrate her “general concern with naming as an index of power” and her respect for language. However, Eberwein believes that the poem is an example of how “diction often failed to encompass the inexpressible,” arguing that the poem is imprecise and that “the tenor overwhelms the vehicle.” Eberwein believes that the “analogy breaks down in the puzzling conclusion with its absurd assumption that hope might ever go begging for help.”
Sean Robisch holds a Ph.D. in American Literature from Purdue University and has taught composition and literature for eight years. In the following essay, Robisch deliberates upon the questions raised by a careful reading of “‘Hope’ is the Thing with Feathers.”
When you come to an Emily Dickinson poem, you’ll be tempted to “answer” it somehow, to say, “Well, I can only guess, so here’s what I think this means.” The first step in being a good student of her work is resisting such a temptation, for several reasons. Most importantly, you might deny her poetry one of its greatest strengths: it asks questions for which answers are just interruptions, questions that shatter into more questions. This should not result in our finally giving up and guessing at what a poem means. On the contrary, a good strong question lets us consider more than one perspective at a time—we do not have to choose one—while still generating energy in us to investigate, and thereby to support our opinions with words and images, logic and examples. Dickinson works in metaphors, in oblique approaches to big topics (such as hope), giving us some discomfort at times, and inviting us to look not only at the poem on the page, but at what we have brought to it from our own experiences. The theologian and novelist Frederick Buechner once wrote that “doubt is the ants in the pants of faith,” that which keeps faith alive and kicking. Dickinson’s poetry has lasted through one of the strangest phenomena of critical popularity in the history of American poetry—the poems were not highly touted when they were written, and in fact only seven of them were published in her lifetime. They have gained acclaim partly because Dickinson transcended simple separations of, say, doubt (bad) and faith (good). She was able to see that doubt and faith, or hope and despair, might exist in some other relationship than mere polarity.
Dickinson wrote “‘Hope’ Is the Thing with Feathers” in 1861. To a greater extent than is true today (though the problem is still certainly alive), the strongly expressed opinions of women on philosophical matters were not given proper currency in America. When the poem appeared in a volume published by Thomas Johnson in 1892, little of the political oppression of women had changed in the nearly thirty years since it had been written, despite a war over oppression and two industrial economic collapses. But by then, Dickinson had been dead for six years, her reputation now almost completely posthumous, and the reviewers and critics had to speculate on the relationship of her life and her views of antebellum American culture to what they saw on the page. And speculate they did; for many years the publishers of Dickinson’s work were chastised for simply being disingenuously charitable
What Do I Read Next?
- For four seminal works of the “American Renaissance,” read Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855), Thoreau’s Walden (1854), and Emerson’s essays, “The Poet” (1844) and “Self-Reliance” (1844).
- Hope Is the Thing with Feathers, and Two Other Short Plays(New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1949) includes three plays produced on Broadway under the general title, Hope’s the Thing by Richard Harrity.
- In An American Triptych: Anne Bradstreet, Emily Dickinson, Adrienne Rich, author Wendy Martin shows how the three American women authors formed their own personal visions, which have become part of a larger American, female poetic (1984).
- Two books treat Dickinson’s personal vocabulary: David Porter, in Dickinson: The Modern Idiom(1981), draws upon close readings of Dickinson’s manuscripts to discuss her sense of otherness and absence; and Christanne Miller finds the roots of Dickinson’s highly unusual style and grammar to be feminist in Emily Dickinson: A Poet’s Grammar(1987).
- In Emily Dickinson and Riddle (1969), Dolores Dyer Lucas argues that the character and mystique of Dickinson’s poetry are closely tied to the form of the literary riddle, pointing out how well the device served the poet in her isolated lifestyle.
- A carefully chosen selection of essays by eight eminent Dickinson scholars is contained in Emily Dickinson: Modern Critical Views (1985), one of the Chelsea House series edited by Harold Bloom.
to a “fragile” female poet. Some critics slowly came around to the deep root structures of the poems, which had for some time looked to them like a patch of pale little flowers. When the 1955 Collected Poems appeared, one hundred years after Dickinson had begun writing, and after her contemporary Walt Whitman had fought considerably to bring attention to his own radical efforts, the criticism of her work began in earnest. With the 1955 edition students of literature for the first time had access to the full body of work, in which poems such as “‘Hope’ Is the Thing with Feathers” had a context. In the poems Dickinson had composed, gathered into the bundles she called “fascicles,” and stored in her dresser a century before, scholars had a means of finding (sometimes a bit too capriciously) groups, themes, stylistic consistencies, and methods refined over many years.
This raises two important issues that a student of Dickinson’s work should have in mind when reading one of her poems. The first is that to read one Dickinson poem and consider what she meant is a bit like reading a single line from a Shakespearean play and forming a conclusion about it. She is best read in hundreds, in long mornings of sitting with the poetry and watching it accumulate like snowfall, recognizing the reappearance of such images as the sun, or winter, or birds. As a result, like snowfall, the accumulation of her poems will change the textures of things. The second is that because her work’s survival is unusual among the publication histories of most poets we now know and read, we can’t reduce what her poems have accomplished to the catchiness of little rhymed verses that may often be sung to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” With these warnings in mind, a reader will respect Emily Dickinson even while being puzzled and challenged by her, but will never assume that she was simple, provincial, or quiet (she has been unfortunately popularized as all of these). In one letter she wrote inviting a young man on a date, she included a reference to herself as “Judith of the Apocrypha,” and later in the letter explained to him, “That’s what they call a metaphor
“We are faced with the complexity of a poem that, if we read it superficially, would breeze right by us in an easy rhyme scheme.”
in our country. Don’t be afraid of it, sir, it won’t bite.” This is sound advice to us as well, as we approach her poetry.
Critics have looked at Dickinson as a mystic, a spinster, a “half-cracked” recluse, a morbid obsessor, a poet of renunciation, and a religious skeptic. Some of these labels may be closer to the mark than others, but they are still merely labels. On the other hand, it is difficult to read Dickinson without considering the influence of her life on her work. Poet and critic John Mann has pointed out that for many students, reading the letters she wrote to her early mentor, Thomas W. Higginson, enriches the reading of her poems. Poets such as Hart Crane and Adrienne Rich have written poetic tributes to Dickinson, which they composed in her style of rhyme and dash, of sparseness, and what one critic has called “intense brevity”; and such tributes remind us that Dickinson is an important figure in American literature. Her place in American letters does not change the quality of her writing, but rather has generated a history of interpretation of her poems, much of which has attempted to figure out somehow “what she meant.”
Hope is a recurring subject in her work, and is a tough topic for any poet to render. In this poem, Dickinson approaches hope through two key devices: metaphor and sound. The metaphor of the bird prompts us to answer the question, “What is hope?” with “It is a bird.” But many questions arise from that first metaphor of the feathers. Critic Katherine M. Rogers proposes several; for instance, “Why does Hope sing the tune without the words?” and “Do birds sing in bad weather?” The former question asks us to look for answers either within the poem or in our experience; the latter asks for a factual answer (birds do sometimes sing in bad weather). But even these questions, once answered, lead us through the poem and expand or multiply. So what if birds do sing in bad weather? How does that influence our reading of the poem? We propose answers, knowing that other answers might work, and that we could go back through the poem many times and realize many combinations. Finally we read that the Bird, Hope, “that kept so many warm” with singing, never asks “a crumb” of the narrator. Why not? we ask; or, contrarily, Why would it? If the Bird is a metaphor for Hope, what does the crumb represent? To complicate matters further, we are left with Hope not asking a question, which implies that Hope may have, in fact, done so at some other time—that it could and does on some occasions ask for a metaphoric crumb.
This brings us to the topic of sound. The bird is shown to us a bit (it has feathers, it is small), but mostly the metaphor is worked out by what we hear. The bird’s song runs through the poem—a tune without words in a work of literature that’s all about words—and becomes at the end the possibility of a request, a change from one kind of sound (a bird’s song) to another (a voice that could ask a question). Right away we are faced with the complexity of a poem that, if we read it superficially, would breeze right by us in an easy rhyme scheme.
Another way Dickinson writes from behind the veil of simplicity is with her use of the dash. This is a famous trademark of her work, and it has been given many critical interpretations. In fact, some published editions of her poems, partly because her handwritten manuscripts were difficult to decipher and partly because editors took liberties with her verses, omit the dashes or change them to other marks, such as commas or semicolons. The consensus today is that she worked deliberately with the dash and that it serves her poems well. Notice, for example, the dash in the last line, after “crumb.” It asks us to pause, to add drama to the last two words; but this might not be its only function. That is, the poem may not be quite so self indulgent, even with the capital “Me.” The dash could suggest that the Bird has at some time asked a crumb of someone else, even that it would not deign to ask a crumb of the narrator, whose capital “Me” might then indicate profound humility and disappointment that she/he wasn’t asked. The dash at the end of the second stanza implies the simple replacement of a period, and first two could easily be commas. But clearly the dash is not used to solve all matters of punctuation, because in the second-to-last line we find three commas, the last of which is ungram-matical. A reader might desperately want there to be a pattern to all of this, a specific, systematic reason for the punctuation. And Dickinson carefully chose her words and arrangement; that ungrammatical comma is not a mistake, but a conscious stylistic device. But maybe by assuming that the poem’s punctuation must follow some totalizing system, even if not the one we’re used to, we might take the dashes individually. They seem to be performing varying functions, rather than one, to exhibit a freedom that isn’t normally afforded them by a system of rules and conventions. By calling attention to themselves, the commas add something to a line that already speaks with considerable force (“never,” the poet says, and “Extremity” is capitalized). So the punctuation may as easily ask us to look at the lines separately and slowly, to consider each breath we take at each instance. They ask us to listen.
Hope is placed in quotes, indicating something so-called, an abstraction, an idea that might lack proof or substance. But at the same time, the narrator of the poem not only invests Hope with substance, but also gives it power to sing continuously, to weather a storm, to exist in the harshest environments. And after this demonstration of Hope’s resourcefulness, the final image in the poem is the narrator, in the first person, standing before the little Bird and realizing that it needs nothing of her/him. To test one possible interpretation, Dickinson implies with this ending that if I put myself in the position of the “Me” narrator, I become the one who needs the song of the Bird, the voice of Hope, and I come to recognize what a potent force it really is.
This finally points out one more element of Dickinson’s writing that makes it both fantastic and demanding: a Dickinson poem is not governed by one solitary emotion. Just as speculation about her life might too easily result in labelling who she was, assuming that one of her poems must be either joyful or sad, encouraging or depressing, coy or assertive, faithful or skeptical, will usually sell the poem short. The most powerful emotions we feel are those that come in combination with others, and Emily Dickinson was able to handle those powerful combinations with such depth that what seems like a single note being played may actually turn out to be a full range of harmonics. The way to find the combinations in her poems is neither to come to them with answers, nor to bail out with the weakness of unexamined opinions. The way to learn from Dickinson is to ask and ask again.
Source: Sean Robisch, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1998.
David T. Porter
In the following excerpt, Porter discusses the various stylistic techniques—including the use of capitalization and dashes—utilized in Dickinson’s early poems.
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“There is a paradoxical formal spareness yet connotative richness of statement in her poetry.”
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“She was capable of distilling emotional turmoil into its essence to the point where feeling exists dissociated from the outer world. The poems become experience rather than mirrors of experience.…”
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Source: “New Ways of Articulating the World” in The Art of Emily Dickinson’s Early Poetry, Harvard University Press. 1966, pp. 125-55.
Ditsky, John, “The Two Emilies and a Feathered Hope,” Kyushu American Literature, Vol. 19, 1978, pp. 28-31.
Eberwein, Jane Donahue, “‘My Little Force Explodes’: The Poetics of Distillation,” in her Strategies of Limitation, University of Massachusetts Press, 1985, pp. 128-58.
Fast, Robin Riley, and Christine Mack Gordon, eds., Approaches to Teaching Dickinson’s Poetry, New York: Modern Language Association, 1989.
Monteiro, G., “Dickinson’s “‘Hope” Is the Thing with Feathers,’” Explicator, Vol. 47, No. 4, Summer, 1989, pp. 34-7.
Phillips, Elizabeth, Emily Dickinson: Personae and Performance, University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1988.
Porter, David T., “New Ways of Articulating the World,” in his The Art of Emily Dickinson’s Early Poetry, Harvard University Press, 1966, pp. 125-55.
Rupp, Richard H., ed., Critics on Emily Dickinson, Coral Gables: University of Miami Press, 1972.
Wolff, Cynthia Griffin, “Can You Make the World Anew with Words?” in her Emily Dickinson, Alfred A. Knopf, 1986, pp.474-91.
Wylder, Edith. The Last Face: Emily Dickinson’s Manuscripts, Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1971.
Buell, Lawrence, Literary Transcendentalism: Style and Vision in the American Renaissance, Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1973.
Studies the emergence of a Transcendentalist aesthetic from its roots in Unitarianism. Dickinson is mentioned as a practitioner, but most of the discussion revolves around Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Walt Whitman.
Hughes, Ted, ed., A Choice of Emily Dickinson’s Verse, Boston: Faber and Faber, 1968.
Mott, Wesley T., ed., Encyclopedia of Transcendentalism, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996.
In-depth entries provide background for study of the major figures, concepts, and publications of the movement.
Spiller, Robert E., The Cycle of American Literature: An Essay in Historical Criticism, New York: The MacMillan Company, 1955.
Provides historical context for the study of American literature, including a chapter on the “inner life” of artists such as Dickinson and Henry James.
Wolf, Cynthia Griffin, Emily Dickinson, New York: Knopf, 1986.
A major biography that attempts to explain the intricate relationship between the poet’s life and her work, the life of her mind and the voice of her poems.