My wife, Camille Ware Kress, and I are big fans of the great American poet, Emily Dickinson. Frequently, we’ll put life aside and devote an hour to the wonderful work of reading, discussing, and coming to an understanding of one of her poems.
We buy all sorts of editions of her work. We travel to other cities to see exhibits about her. And, of course, when a film such as “A Quiet Passion,” comes out, we’ll rush out to see it.
As you might expect from zealots such as ourselves, we are embarking on a little summer project to highlight this extraordinary poet. Every week or so, we will pick a poem, study it, write a short blog on our take of its meaning, publish it in various social media, and invite study and further comments from our friends.
Here’s the first.
“Hope” is the thing with feathers
By Emily Dickinson
“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.
C. Kress: According to the Emily Dickinson Lexicon, the poet uses the word “thing” 115 times and with seven different meanings in her poems. She also often employs birds, land, and sea as metaphor, turning nature into human-nature.
So what sort of thing is Hope?
In the first stanza, we learn it is a winged thing, a feathered thing, a thing that “perches in the soul.” Dickinson could have named Hope in these beginning lines, simply calling it a bird. She does not. Rather, she hints of something that dwells within us capable of flight.
This thing “sings the tune without the words.” Perhaps, this is the poet’s way of saying that there is a greater mystery in melody, rather than defined lyrics – and where there is mystery, there is humility. Isn’t it true that our deepest hopes can’t be expressed or described in words? At times of both joy and pain, the thing renders us speechless. Hope is ineffable.
The last line of the first stanza is Dickinson’s most optimistic. She seems to assure us that hope is everlasting. “And never stops – at all” It appears we are a spiritual species with a direct flightpath to the Eternal!
Not so fast…Leave it to Emily Dickinson to show hope contested by howling winds. She is not fond of over-confidence and tidy plans. In stanza two, we are left to wonder if this thing within us will survive. There may be a “sore” storm that could “abash” it.
Here, Dickinson uses the name Bird for the first time. In her strange style, she capitalizes certain words, putting the reader on notice: Pay attention.
Will the thing with feathers fall to its death? Are there some hopes that simply can’t survive?
Maybe. But she has told us that it “never stops – at all.” Further, it’s heard “in the Gale” and is its “sweetest” there.
“I’ve heard it in the chillest land – And on the strangest Sea.” Dickinson knew the death of loved ones up close and personal – “the chillest land.” Rarely leaving her parents home as an adult, she was thought by some to be an odd recluse. Perhaps, but she probably dealt with the isolation – “the strangest sea” – that comes with a persistent melancholy, what we often call depression today. “Hope” may, for her, have been a Bird, forever threatened, but always singing a sustaining song.
“Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.”
In a life in which our wise and sensitive poet felt that much was asked of her, it’s lovely to see that that which served her best asked nothing of her at all.
In closing, she leaves us, not with certainty, but with a sense of gratitude for the mystery of Hope. Even when we call out in desperation – “in Extremity” – it seems to be there, perched in the soul, singing without words…waiting to take flight.
S. Kress: I believe this is one of the most purely optimistic, “happy” of Emily Dickinson’s poems.
I love the thought of a songbird and its beautiful melody as the metaphor for hope. A songbird perched in the soul, and one that never stops – at all – is a very strong hope!
Even more, a hope that still lives in the midst of storm, well, that’s real hope. How true it is that the storms of our lives – and all that bring them on – have as a first aim the destruction of hope. Yet, in the midst of real hope, how “sore” it and they must be that they can’t abash the Little Bird. (By the way, do the capital letters for little bird connote the idea that God is there in the hope, too?)
What a lovely ending. And how true: hope is there, with its warming song, even in the most difficult times, and it never asks anything in return from us.