Literature

A Short Analysis of Emily Dickinson’s ‘Hope is the thing with feathers’

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.

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.

‘“Hope” is the thing with feathers’: summary

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.

‘“Hope” is the thing with feathers’: analysis

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’:

‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

‘Bird’ will be delayed until the second stanza, because Dickinson appears to want to reject any glib simile of ‘hope = singing bird’:

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

The analogy must instead unfold and develop gradually. There is no ‘My heart is like a singing bird‘ (to borrow from Dickinson’s contemporary, Christina Rossetti) here.

In her analysis of ‘“Hope” is the thing with feathers’ in her book Dickinson, which contains a raft of fascinating and convincing readings of individual poems by Emily Dickinson, the critic Helen Vendler invites us to ponder the significance of the word ‘thing’. According to the Emily Dickinson Lexicon (Vendler writes), Dickinson uses the word 115 different times across her work, with seven different meanings.

It’s always fascinating to study a poet’s linguistic fingerprint, and analyse the kinds of words (and word-formations) they like to use in their work. These details help to make their work what it is an provide its distinctiveness. As Vendler observes, ‘thing’ represents Dickinson’s ‘single largest mental category’, since it takes in everything from acts to creatures to concepts and occasions. ‘It is as though she begins each general enquiry’, Vendler notes, ‘with the general question, “What sort of thing is this?” and then goes on to categorize it more minutely’.

But there’s something counter-intuitive about a poet whose work is defined by its peculiar and sometimes idiosyncratic attention to detail – describing the snow falling from clouds as being sifted from leaden sieves, for instance, or her wonderfully acute observation of a cat hunting a bird – making such wide and varied use of ‘thing’, a word which is, to borrow Vendler’s adjective, ‘bloodless’. We can picture an eagle or a parrot or a crow, but a ‘thing with feathers’? No chance.

Dickinson’s is by no means the only notable poem about hope. We might also mention a poem by her namesake, Emily Brontë (1818-48). Like Dickinson, Brontë begins her poem by trying to define hope:

Hope was but a timid friend;
She sat without the grated den,
Watching how my fate would tend,
Even as selfish-hearted men.

She was cruel in her fear;
Through the bars one dreary day,
I looked out to see her there,
And she turned her face away!

Brontë’s is far more of a narrative poem with symbolic undertones (we’ve analysed it here), while Dickinson’s is lyrical, focusing on the central metaphor. And it is direct metaphor rather than simile: ‘“Hope” is the thing with feathers’. But we might also note those quotation marks: Dickinson is talking about not hope but ‘hope’, the idea of hope, the way we talk about it rather than the reality. Already we have left behind the concrete realities of the world in favour of abstract ideas (or ideals).

‘“Hope” is the thing with feathers’ is written in lines of alternating iambic tetrameter and trimeter, meaning there are three four iambs in the odd lines and three iambs in the even lines. (An iamb is a metrical foot comprising one unstressed syllable followed by a stressed, as in the word ‘because’: ‘be-CAUSE’.) So, in the middle stanza, we get:

And SWEET- / est – IN / the GALE / – is HEARD –
And SORE / must BE / the STORM –
That COULD / a-BASH / the LIT- / tle BIRD
That KEPT / so MAN- / y WARM –

To this analysis of the poem’s metre, it’s worth drawing attention to the opening trochaic substitution, announcing ‘Hope’ in the poem’s very first line, as its very first word: ‘“HOPE” is’, not ‘“Hope” IS’.

The poem is written in quatrains rhymed abcb, although we should note that ‘soul’ and ‘all’ in the first stanza are not really rhymes but rather pararhyme: ‘off-rhyme’, if you will. Similarly, in the middle stanza, the rhyme follows the pattern abab, while the final stanza is really rhymed abbb, since ‘Extremity’ chimes with both ‘Sea’ and ‘me’. This brings things together: not only the final three lines, but also the alignment of these various ideas with the speaker’s self, their sense of ‘me’.

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.

7 Comments

  1. Yes, this one’s a personal favorite of mine! I know it by heart because I had to discuss it several time during my career as an English tutor and my very short stint as an English teacher.

    This is a great analysis, by the way. I hope students for generations to come stumble upon it in their quest to understand it!

  2. Nicely done! One of her best and students enjoy it as well.

  3. Beautiful!

  4. I like the poem.

  5. Pingback: Dickinsonian Resources | The Golden Echo

  6. Enjoyed your article very much — but “Only” Emily could write an opening like “Hope is the thing with feathers”? How about “Time is the feather’d thing,” from Jasper Mayne, about 200 years before Emily. If I wrote a poem beginning “Hope is the feather’d thing,” I’d properly be nailed for plagiarism. I love Emily (the most distant cousin imaginable), but other poets exist.

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