By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘A Bird came down the Walk’ focuses on a popular theme of Emily Dickinson’s poems: animals. As ever, she looks at them in her own way, offering an idiosyncratic perspective on the bird, in this poem.
A Bird came down the Walk—
He did not know I saw—
He bit an Angleworm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw,
And then he drank a Dew
From a convenient Grass—
And then hopped sidewise to the Wall
To let a Beetle pass—
He glanced with rapid eyes
That hurried all around—
They looked like frightened Beads, I thought—
He stirred his Velvet Head
Like one in danger, Cautious,
I offered him a Crumb
And he unrolled his feathers
And rowed him softer home—
Than Oars divide the Ocean,
Too silver for a seam—
Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon
Leap, plashless as they swim.
Emily Dickinson wrote lyric poems. Nevertheless, some of her most famous poems, such as ‘Because I could not stop for Death’, contain more ‘action’ than ‘A Bird came down the Walk’, which simply focuses on Dickinson observing the bird as it catches and eats an earthworm, drinks some dew from the grass, and – in a characteristically Dickinsonian touch – appears to step aside to let a beetle go past, as though the bird were observing some social code of etiquette.
Dickinson offers the bird a crumb to eat, but it flies off home, its wings putting the poet in mind of oars rowing through the ocean waves, or the elegance of butterflies as they glide through the noonday sky.
So much for a ‘summary’ of ‘A Bird came down the Walk’, but, as always with Emily Dickinson’s poetry, the devil is in the detail, and the little touches she gives to the scene to make it come alive and encourage us to see the bird in a new light.
The description of the bird’s eyes as ‘Beads’ is one such touch – but not just ‘Beads’, of course, but ‘frightened Beads’, in a move which renders the inanimate (beads) animate through use of the adjective ‘frightened’, although the beads themselves are being used, of course, to describe the bird’s keen sense of not just animateness but animation: the elegance of its wings as it ‘rows’ through the sky, and the darting movement of its keen eyes in its ‘Velvet Head’.
Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote ‘The Windhover’; Shelley gave us ‘To a Skylark’; Keats wrote ‘Ode to a Nightingale’. But Emily Dickinson is content merely to tell us that ‘A Bird came down the Walk’: despite the attention to detail elsewhere in the poem, it is noteworthy that her analysis and observation of the scene is signally lacking in detail when it comes to the main subject of the poem.
It could be any number of species of birds: we are not reading a John Clare poem here with its specificity about the avian world, but rather an amateur’s view of nature, with Dickinson’s trademark childlike ability to seize upon overlooked details of the scene. She views the bird not as an ornithologist, but as an innocent observer whose attention is suddenly seized by something of note.
As so often with Emily Dickinson’s poetry, the bird which came down the walk possesses a fascination which the poet cannot overlook, with that final image of the bird’s wings ‘rowing’ through the air leaving us with a memorable take on the idea of a bird in flight.