Notes on Dickinson’s “Hope is the thing with feathers…” (254)

“Hope” is the thing with feathers… (254)
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.

Commentary:

Those are indeed scare quotes around “Hope;” the bluntness of “thing with feathers” tells our speaker’s mood. This “thing” plants itself – perhaps unwelcome – in the “soul” and hammers away at a tune. It doesn’t bother to be articulate even though it is unceasing.

The absence of logos and its double nature – speech and reason are both missing here – should mean that “hope” is doomed to fail. It should reveal itself to be entirely false. But something strange happens upon reflection: even though a tune is not fully articulate, even though it merely mirrors the temporal, it still is distinct from the “Gale.” An empty, howling sound is no match for a sweet one. A “storm” could even have regrets from attempting to “abash the little Bird.” The “thing” has received a name because of its power: it stands distinct in aiding others, whereas the storm attempts to reduce.

We note that our speaker’s mood is improving although she is articulating a serious problem with “hope” – it is, strictly speaking, inhuman. Logos is well beyond it: animals can make music. “Hope” is very real, though: its sweetness (content) and merely having form (warmth distinguished from chaos/storm) are easily seen. We’d be stupid to deny its existence, as the speaker almost did in the first stanza.

Finally, Dickinson’s speaker moves away from the general to the particular with “I.” She’s heard the bird when she personally was cold; she heard it when gales and storms were trying her.  Her gratefulness seems to have improved her mood. The implicit imagery is of a ship needing warmth and direction: a very good paper could probably be written on Dickinson’s use of the word “sweet” in this poem and in “This is my letter to the world.” Sweetness isn’t just a feeling: it is a path of sorts, it seems. That path, here, is tied to “extremity.” We note that the final couplet (“extremity,” “me”) are the only two lines besides the one introducing the “bird” to not end in a dash. The bird is the speaker at an extreme, which is why no crumbs are necessary. The inhuman composes the human, and again the question resounds: is this really “hope” we’ve discussed?

4 Comments

  1. What a pretty poem!! You’re right, I like it- actually in much the same way (I hate when I write things like that, btw ;) as I liked that umm, sun in an empty room- wow, did I actually remember that? She definitely conveys that– feeling =P

  2. Fred Douglass would say hope is a human thing, I think. In his narrative, he says that something actually defining what a human is, separating him from lesser beings is the “elasticity of his spirit.”

    He couldn’t be enslaved because ya know, you can domesticate the wildest of beasts (we see them in zoos all the time), and while you can place someone in bondage, they will never stop resisting. I say this is hope. It might be something else, but that’s my gut feeling about it, anyway..

  3. I take back my earlier comment. Ashok, you ask whether this is really “hope” we are discussing — it’s not. Dickinson is speaking about madness.

    When I brought up Douglass earlier, I started to realize that his hope was grounded in reason. Similarly, Odysseus in the Cyclops cave felt a sudden rush of hope: I am man, and this is just a stupid beast!

    Hobbes calls hope “a sudden rush of anger.” We are told by the Greeks that thymos (Mansfield discusses this in that Jefferson lecture you posted) can make us angry, but then moves us to reason out why we are angry, and therefore to act on that reason.

    There’s a difference between “hoping” to win the gold medal in the Olympics if you don’t run all year long, and “hoping” you win the local 5k if you train well for it.

  4. dickinson is considered difficult poetess for her difficult style of poetry,her extra vegent use of dashes and punctation is very difficult to understand,but her voculbary is limited, and the theme of her poems revolve round death, love, nature, and imigary,thanks

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