An introduction to one of Dickinson’s finest poems by Dr Oliver Tearle
Only Emily Dickinson could open a poem with a line like ‘“Hope” is the thing with feathers’. Poets before her had compared hope to a bird, but ‘thing with feathers’ was a peculiarly Dickinsonian touch. Here is this great little poem by Dickinson, along with a short analysis of it.
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.
In summary, then: as with many of her poems, Emily Dickinson takes an abstract feeling or idea – in this case, hope – and likens it to something physical, visible, and tangible – here, a singing bird. Hope, for Dickinson, sings its wordless tune and never stops singing it: nothing can faze it.
In other words (as it were), hope does not communicate by ‘speaking’ to us in a conventional sense: it is a feeling that we get, not always a rational one, that cheers us even in dark times of despair. Indeed, hope is sweetest of all when the ‘Gale’ is busy raging: during turbulent or troubled times, hope is there for us.
And hope can withstand just about anything: even in times of cold comfort (‘the chillest land’) or in foreign or unfamiliar climes (‘on the strangest Sea’), hope remains. And hope never asks for anything from us in return. It provides comfort and solace but does not require anything back.
Note Dickinson’s ingenious use of the word ‘words’ in the first stanza, which, coming at the end of the third line, looks back to the first line for a rhyme but instead of finding ‘bird(s)’ finds, instead, ‘thing with feathers’. ‘Bird’ will be delayed until the second stanza, because Dickinson appears to want to reject any glib simile of ‘hope = singing bird’. The analogy must instead unfold and develop gradually. The result is a fine Dickinson poem which deserves to be better known.
Continue to explore Dickinson’s work with our analysis of her classic poem ‘I heard a Fly buzz – when I died’, ‘Because I could not stop for Death‘, and our discussion of her haunting poem about truth and beauty. You might also like these classic poems about birds. Continue to explore the fascinating world of Dickinson’s poetry with her Complete Poems.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Image: Black/white photograph of Emily Dickinson by William C. North (1846/7), Wikimedia Commons.