A commentary on Emily Dickinson’s poem by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘She sights a Bird – she chuckles’: so begins an underappreciated little poem by Emily Dickinson (1830-86), and – for our money – one of the most evocative poems ever penned about a cat. The way Dickinson describes the predatory stalking and waiting of the feline subject is delicious. Here we’re going to stop and analyse how Dickinson uses language and imagery to evoke a cat’s movement and poise when on the hunt for prey.
She sights a Bird—she chuckles—
She flattens—then she crawls—
She runs without the look of feet—
Her eyes increase to Balls—
Her Jaws stir—twitching—hungry—
Her Teeth can hardly stand—
She leaps, but Robin leaped the first—
Ah, Pussy, of the Sand,
The Hopes so juicy ripening—
You almost bathed your Tongue—
When Bliss disclosed a hundred Toes—
And fled with every one—
The poem is easy to summarise: Dickinson is describing her cat, which has spotted a bird and attempts to ensnare the poor robin.
The bird gets away before the cat can pounce on her hapless prey. But of course such a paraphrase destroys virtually everything that makes Dickinson’s poem such a delight: the idea of a cat ‘chuckl[ing]’, for one, or the description of the way the cat’s eyes, upon sighting the bird, ‘increase to Balls’: they were already balls, of course, in the sockets of the creature’s head, but they now seem to become not only larger but more spherical as the cat’s focus homes in on her potential prey.
That final stanza, too, with its masterly image of ‘Bliss’ revealing ‘a hundred toes’ and then fleeing on them: as is so often the case in an Emily Dickinson poem, the abstract is here given concrete existence. The robin has two feet, of course, and eight toes altogether – quite a way off a hundred.
The exaggeration conveys the urgency of the little bird’s flight. (The word ‘disclosed’, rather than ‘revealed’, is also a nice touch, suggesting the opposite of closing away the toes beneath the body, but also the subtlety of the act, like disclosing a secret.) The image of the cat having ‘bathed’ her tongue in her saliva, anticipating the kill that doesn’t come, also takes abstract ‘Hopes’ and renders them vivid to us.
It’s also curious that the Emily Dickinson trademark – those dashes – is here made to seem less idiosyncratic than is so often the case in her poems. Given the halting and breathless tension of the chase – the hunter in pursuit of the hunted – those dashes strike us as a natural syntactical way of conveying the fits and starts, the pauses and pounces, the stillness and then the sudden flight, of the cat and the robin.
‘She sights a Bird – she chuckles’ is a fine cat poem, and a great example of the way Emily Dickinson can describe things in a way which is eccentric and unusual but which does what the best poetry always does: that is, makes us see the thing in a new light.
If you want to own all of Dickinson’s wonderful poetry in a single volume, you can: we recommend the Faber edition of her Complete Poems. Discover more about Dickinson’s classic poems with ‘I died for Beauty, but was scarce‘, ‘One need not be a Chamber to be Haunted‘, and ‘I cannot live with You‘.
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: Cat stalking prey (picture credit: Jennifer Barnard, 2007), via Wikimedia Commons.
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I hear she was a dog lover not much one for cats. This makes the poem even more interesting because she understands the feline so well. Then again–perhaps she’s laughing at the cat.
It certainly seems to be a playful criticism of the feline’s darker, predatory side – and as you say, makes more sense in light of Dickinson’s cynophilia!