“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.
Emily Dickinson, 1861
“’Hope’” is the thing with feathers,” by Emily Dickinson, is a favorite poem that has been much on my mind lately. The first stanza, which I know by heart, never fails to cheer me when the world begins to look bleak. Dickinson uses an extended metaphor in her attempt to define the complex and elusive concept of Hope. By placing the word in quotation marks, she acknowledges that it is an intangible abstraction. Her choice of the deliberately ambiguous word “thing” in the first line sets our minds to speculating, and emphasizes that since it is essentially indefinable, any comparison to what we know will be inadequate. Undaunted, she sets out to define it by comparing it to a living being. The “thing” has feathers, implying lightness and airiness; but is it a bird, an angel, or something else entirely?
Be it bird or angel, this feathered friend “perches” in the soul, like a small, flying spirit who is a visitor rather than a resident. With one master stroke of concision, the word “perches” conveys a world of meaning: lightness, natural greenery (where things typically perch), balance, and strength. The host soul barely feels it alight, but is made aware of its presence when it “sings the tune without the words.” Hope’s message is communicated through melody, like birdsong; but the poet’s focus on the absence of words suggests that this music has meaning, even though we can understand it only emotionally. Next we learn that the presence, once it arrives, becomes a constant companion, which “never stops – at all.” This highlights a paradox; Hope is both fleeting—characterized by flight and perching—and constant, because once it arrives in your soul, it stays. That constancy is a source of comfort.
Although in the second stanza the poet does refer to the object of her definition as a “Bird,” by this time she has established Hope as a unique mystery, like a bird but not a bird. Its song is most welcome during a severe storm, the kind with gale-force winds, symbolizing any painful or harrowing event that might produce fear or despair. The next line assures us that only the most drastic storm might “abash” the tiny spirit, who has comforted countless victims. “Abash,” related to bashful, means to embarrass or shake the self-confidence of—but is a word not typically used to describe a bird. Here we have another paradox: the small creature, as delicate as a bird, is yet strong enough to stand up to the most powerful of assaults without losing its courage. A good friend to have on your side, for sure!
In the final stanza, the poet relates her personal experience with this enigmatic creature and its comforting song. The situations which have called it forth are described in terms of climate and landscape: “the chillest land” implies emotional coldness or even absence, and reinforces Hope’s ability to keep “so many warm.” Similarly, “the Strangest Sea” suggests alienation or loneliness. No matter how extreme the poet’s need, however, Hope has been there to provide succor without any expectation of recompense. The word “crumb” returns us to the bird metaphor by expressing possible repayment in terms of a bird’s food, and indicates that Hope can survive with little or no sustenance. At the same time, this line distinguishes Hope from a bird by endowing it with the capability to ask a question. The poem ends on a spiritual note: Hope is a precious blessing that sustains us in our darkest hour, while expecting nothing in return for its gift.
The majority of Dickinson’s poems are written in what is known as “hymn meter,” because so many Protestant hymns use it (Dickinson was a product of Puritan New England). This meter consists of alternating lines of 4 feet and 3 feet, where each iambic foot has one unstressed and one stressed syllable (da-DAH, da-DAH)—a pattern which to some extent mimics natural English speech. “A-MAZ-ing GRACE how SWEET the SOUND” contains four iambic feet, followed by “that SAVED a WRETCH like ME,” which has three. Compare this to “And SINGS the TUNE withOUT the WORDS / And NEV-er STOPS at ALL,” and you can readily hear the similarity. While the majority of the poem follows this meter, the first line departs from it, which has the effect of setting the word “Hope”—the poem’s central subject—apart and emphasizing its uniqueness. Dickinson was also a pioneer of “slant rhyme,” which ends the line with words that share consonants, but often have slightly different vowel sounds, for example soul/all or room/storm (from a different poem). She preferred the simple and emphatic dash over other punctuation, which causes us to pause and think. For example, the dash after “stops” causes “at all” to stand out more strongly, and similarly adds extra emphasis to “never.”
Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) is one of the most beloved, most original, and most important of American poets. The fact that she was a woman, writing at a time when the literary landscape was dominated by men, adds a unique sensibility to her poetry. Born in Amherst, Massachusetts, to a prominent family, she may be considered part of the New England Renaissance that included contemporaries Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Nathanial Hawthorne, and Louisa May Alcott (all of whose work she no doubt read but whom she probably never met). She lived as a recluse most of her adult life in the family home—now a museum—with her father, who was involved in politics and served a term in Congress, her sister Lavinia, and her brother Austin and his wife, who lived next door. Her poems, numbering close to 1800, were hand-written and sewn into small booklets she called “fascicles,” only discovered after her death and published posthumously in 1890. As reported in the Dec. 5, 2016 issue of The New Yorker, many additional “envelope poems” were only recently published, and are accessible digitally through Harvard’s Emily Dickinson Archive (www.hup.harvard.edu/features/dickinson). To learn more about this brilliant poet, visit www.poets.org or www.emilydickinsonmuseum.org.
As Dickinson wrote in a letter to her friend Thomas Wentworth Higginson, “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” Her own work definitely rises to this high standard. This breathtaking poem conveys in few words both the lightness of heart Hope can give us, even in dire circumstances, and the wonder we feel that this gift is so freely given. Her dying words, like her poetry, expressed the ineffable in natural terms: “I must go in; the fog is rising.” Her epitaph says simply, “Called Back.”