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