Featured Poem: “Hope” is the thing with feathers by Emily Dickinson


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The great South African cleric, theologian, and activist, Desmond Tutu once said, “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.” To say that the last two months have spelled dark times for mankind is an understatement. With most countries under strict lockdown and the global economy sliding towards a worldwide recession, with so many people sick or starving or both, times like these make it difficult to even muster a sliver of hope. And yet these are the moments when we need hope the most.  Hope is what will make it possible for us to put one foot in front of the other, to persevere and stand resilient in the face of utter chaos and uncertainty.

So today, I would like to write about Hope. Or, more accurately, I would like to write about the poem “Hope” is the thing with feathers by the great American poet, Emily Dickinson. This is one of my favorite pieces from Dickinson, and it’s one that I hope would bring a spot of brightness to your day.

“Hope” is the 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 –

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.

The Bird’s-Eye View: A Brief Background on “Hope” is the thing with feathers

That Emily Dickinson (December 10, 1830 – May 15, 1886) is one of America’s most noted and influential poets of all time is indisputable. The poet was a maverick. She wasn’t afraid to go against the flow of literary trends. At a time when her contemporaries were throwing themselves into creating lengthy, grand, and dramatic pieces—Dickinson pared down her details without sacrificing her message and metaphors. She also had no qualms playing around with punctuations and capitalizations—as you no doubt saw in her poem above.

Another noticeable facet of Dickinson’s writings is the lack of titles. Now, before we go any further with this, it’s important to note that most of the poet’s writings were discovered and published after her death. A lot of the poems didn’t have titles, so editors and publishers went with the poem’s first line.

In the case of our featured poem, “Hope” is the thing with feathers, the lack of title may have been deliberate. The piece was written and compiled in 1861/1862 in Dickinson’s hand-sewn Fascicle 13, and published posthumously in the 1891 collection called Poems by Emily Dickinson.

Style, Structure, and Punctuation

Like most of Emily Dickinson’s other works, “Hope” is the thing with feathers is a three-stanza lyric poem that’s written in first person. Though with the way the poem is structured, only using “I” and “me” once throughout the piece, the persona takes a backseat to her subject. She is simply narrating, stating facts.

Each line is said with certainty and conviction—“Hope” is the thing with feathers – that perches on the soul.” And the first-person perspective is used only in testament to these “facts.” As if the narrator is saying, “I know this to be true! I know this from experience,” because I’ve heard it in the chillest land – and on the strangest Sea. She is telling us a story but in a rather distant fashion, opting to shine the spotlight fully on Hope and not herself.

Another notable feature of the poem is its incredible readability, or rather read-out-loudability. Like the often-recited “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley,  “Hope” is a poem that shines brightest when read out loud. Now, the secret to this lies in the poem’s clever structure. See, “Hope” is the thing with feathers uses alternating iambic trimeter and iambic tetrameter to lend the poem its appealing cadence or rhythm (the da-dum quality of its words). It also has a basic ABCB rhyme scheme that translates well to pleasant reading.

As for the poem’s punctuation, I think unconventional is an apt descriptor for Dickinson’s unusual capitalization of common nouns and liberal use of dashes. Let’s start with the capitalization. The common nouns capitalized in the poem are as follows: Gale, Bird, Sea, and Extremity. Now, it’s apparent that the words were chosen to emphasize certain points in the poem.

When Dickinson says And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –, she is referring to how hope often appears during the hardest times. When she drops the word Bird in the second stanza, it’s actually the first time she’s putting a name to her metaphor for hope. And when she says I’ve heard it in the chillest land – and on the strangest Sea, aside from giving us lovely and contrasting imagery, it’s as if she’s also telling us that hope springs wherever and whenever it’s most needed. Lastly, the capitalization of Extremity serves to emphasize the final line of the poem, (never)… It asked a crumb – of me.

And finally, it’s time to tackle the dashes. For a very short poem, “Hope” has a ridiculous number of dashes—fifteen in total! Now, Dickinson uses the dash liberally and deliberately for two reasons. The first is to emphasize a point or a word. Case in point, in the penultimate line, the word never is highlighted by the dashes that enclose it.  The second reason is for caesura—or to create breaks for the poem’s reader. Much like the way Derek Walcott uses line breaks in Love After Love to create pause points, Dickinson uses dashes to give the reader time to breathe and take in the words.

Poetry Analysis: “Hope” in the Tempest

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

The first line says it all— “Hope” is the thing with feathers is a poem that uses the image of a Bird to describe the qualities of Hope. While it takes an entire stanza for Emily Dickinson to explicitly say bird, the descriptions she uses all but spells it out for the reader. As you can see in the first stanza, the thing the poet describes has feathers, perches, and can wring out a pretty tune. So, the metaphor is easy enough to grasp. However, what the poet does leave out is the type of avian friend we’re facing. Not that it really matters—a change in bird won’t alter the poem’s tune—but some people do think that the bird could be a white dove. This makes sense as the dove is often used in Christian imagery to signify hope.

Now, when Dickinson describes Hope as something that perches in the soul, she tells us where the emotion blooms and resides—in the heart and not as a product of pure rationalization. While the lines about singing the tune without the words and never stopping tells us about the insuppressible and maybe even unreasonable nature of hope. One can have hope even when the odds are stacked far too high for a positive outcome. The feeling is hardly ever ‘logical’ or controllable.

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

Apart from the metaphor of the bird, Dickinson also utilizes seafaring imagery to illustrate the harsh conditions that Hope is able to weather. The words gale and storm appear in the second stanza as situations that try to abash (deflate, humble, or humiliate) Hope. But the little Bird is far stronger than it appears. It will continue its song amidst trouble and thunderstorms. Hope remains constant even when the prospects are dim. It is capable of providing each of us with warmth, comfort, and much-needed reassurance.

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

It is here, in the final stanza, that Dickinson uses the words “I” and “me.” As mentioned in an earlier paragraph, the use of these words read like a testimony. It tells us that the narrator knows about the nature of Hope firsthand, because she has heard it in the chillest land – and on the strangest Sea. She tells us that in spite of everything Hope has given her, it has – never – in Extremity… asked a crumb – of me. These last two lines tell us that the persona may need and receive Hope, but that the feeling has never wanted or needed anything from her—not a morsel of acknowledgment or even a crumb of encouragement.  It persists almost independent from one’s reasonings.

A possible nod to Noah’s Ark

At the risk of over-reaching, I was thinking of how the use of seafaring words in the text – things like “Gale,” “Sea,” “Storm,” and “Land” – seem to conjure images of surviving a tempest at sea. If you close your eyes and let Dickinson’s words wash over you, you can imagine being stuck in a ship or a boat while a storm rages on and threatens to upend your vehicle.  With the elements so outside of your control, the only thing keeping you sane is the irrational but unsinkable hope you have for safe passage and survival.

Now, I’m not sure if the imagery was meant to be biblical, but if we go with the theme of the dark and rough seas, you have to admit that there’s something about the poem that harks back to the story of Noah’s Ark. The dire situation, the unending storm, and the bird that carried in its wings the hope of an entire people—these are all elements of the biblical account. Again, I don’t think this was necessarily something that Dickinson had planned out but I still think it is good food for thought.

The Most Romantic Poems of All Time (Part 2)


Here’s the continuation to my post on the most romantic poems of all time. Again, in no particular order, another ten love poems guaranteed to make you a little weak in the knees.

To My Dear and Loving Husband by Anne Bradstreet

I prize thy love more than the whole mines of gold,
Or all the riches that the East doth hold.
My love is such that rivers cannot quench,
Nor ought but love from thee give recompense.

This short poem from Anne Bradstreet reads like a beautiful and passionate love letter. The poet talks about the intense happiness one can derive from being with the person one loves. The persona also claims that her esteem for her husband is eternal—for it is the type of love that can never be surpassed. It is his love alone that can satisfy her. She also expresses tremendous gratitude to her husband for this life-changing and immortal love.

Meeting at Night by Robert Browning

A tap at the pane, the quick sharp scratch
And blue spurt of a lighted match,
And a voice less loud, through joys and fears,
Than the two hearts beating each to each.

In my previous post, I had included Sonnet 43 (How do I love thee) by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. This time around, we have an entry from her husband, Robert Browning. Meeting at Night speaks of a rendezvous between lovers. More accurately, it talks about the persona’s journey to his lover’s place and the excitement they feel upon seeing each other.

At the start of the poem, the persona describes what he sees and experiences without disclosing his intended destination. It is only in the last two sentences that we realize it is a joyful and somewhat secret reunion between him and his loved one (tap of the pane, quick sharp scratch).

To His Coy Mistress by Andrew Marvell

My vegetable love should grow
Vaster than empires, and more slow;
An hundred years should go to praise
Thine eyes and on thy forehead gaze;

Here’s a small confession from this reader—I can’t quite decide if this ‘love poem’ is sweet or not, but what I know is that its persona is persistent. To His Coy Mistress, a poem published posthumously in 1681, is one of the most well-known poems from Andrew Marvell. In it, the persona is in pursuit of his ‘coy mistress.’ He starts the poem declaring the breadth and depth of his love for her and then attempts to convince her to give in to his seduction by presenting the rather harsh imagery of death. He asks her to love him before it’s too late for both of them. Sweet or not, this poem earns high points for its morbid persistence.

Annabel Lee by Edgar Allan Poe

For the moon never beams, without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise, but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;

More sad than sweet, Annabel Lee by Edgar Allan Poe explores the theme of a love that continues even after death. The poem, which is about the death of a beautiful woman, is believed to have been inspired by Poe’s own loss. His wife, Virginia Eliza Clemm Poe, was just 24 years old when she succumbed to a bout of consumption.

In the poem, the persona remembers and relives the loss of his beloved. They had been in love as children, and had maintained a love so strong that even the angels were envious of their happiness. The angels then sent down a wind that chilled and killed the beautiful Annabel Lee. Despite her death, the persona insists that their love remains strong; for nothing could ever sever his soul from the soul of Annabel Lee.

A Red, Red Rose by Robert Burns

Till a’ the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi’ the sun:
I will luv thee still, my dear,
While the sands o’ life shall run.

A Red, Red Rose was written by Robert Burns in 1794. Despite actually being a song and not a poem, its lyrics and consistent publication in literary sites has landed it a place in my top 20 love poems list. With its charming imagery of red roses in June and rocks melting in the sun, the poem depicts the sweetness of true and lasting love.

I Loved You First: but Afterwards Your Love by Christina Rossetti

For verily love knows not ‘mine’ or ‘thine’;
With separate ‘I’ and ‘thou’ free love has done,
For one is both and both are one in love:

In I loved you first: but afterwards your love, Christina Rossetti writes about the oneness that comes with being in a relationship with the right person. The persona addresses her lover directly, confessing that while she may have loved him first, it was his love that outsoared hers. But ultimately, there is no need for “weights and measures,” for as Rossetti puts it:

Rich love knows nought of ‘thine that is not mine’;
Both have the strength and both the length thereof,
Both of us, of the love which makes us one.

 A Glimpse by Walt Whitman

…And I unremark’d seated in a corner;
Of a youth who loves me, and whom I love, silently approaching, and
Seating himself near, that he may hold me by the hand;

True to its name, A Glimpse by Walt Whitman reads like a beautiful scene from your favorite romance novel. Just one moment of sheer happiness and contentment as the rest of the world continues its hustle and bustle, its flurry of movement. One scene of love immortalized in time.

Sonnet 18 by William Shakespeare

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:

Sonnet 18, alternatively titled as Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?, is perhaps the most well-loved of Shakespeare’s 154 sonnets. In the poem, the persona addresses his lover and compares his beloved to a lovely summer’s day. But ultimately, he points out that his dearest is fairer and more everlasting than the short season, beautiful as summertime may be. His words also prove prophetic when he claims that his beloved will be immortalized through this text, as both Shakespeare and Sonnet 18 have become a permanent fixtures in the ever-evolving literary landscape.

That I Did Always Love by Emily Dickinson

That I did always love
I bring thee Proof
That till I loved
I never lived—Enough—

Fact: Emily Dickinson is one of the finest (and most eccentric) poets to have walked the earth. Also a fact: with her unique use of syntax and capitalizations, her poems are shrouded in an esoteric curtain that begs to be lifted. Well, perhaps more than a curtain, each work is an onion that begs to be peeled layer by layer. Now, the beauty of That I Did Always Love is its rawness and straightforwardness.

Through this poem, she proves to her beloved that she has always loved him. She tells him, almost directly between her em dashes, that what gives life meaning is love, and that should he doubt her love for him then she would feel nothing but immense suffering.

Love After Love by Derek Walcott

You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
To itself, to the stranger who has loved you

All your life, whom you ignored

 And finally, rounding up this list is Love after Love by Sir Derek Walcott. Dare I say it? This is probably my favorite love poem of all—for it is a love poem for one’s self. In this poem, the persona talks to the reader directly and reminds the reader that when everyone else is gone, there is one other person that deserves your love—yourself.

It is easy enough to forget oneself when in love. We give and we give and we empty ourselves in the hopes of reciprocity. But in the midst of a whirlwind or a soft and lingering love affair, it is important to once in a while, “Sit. [and] Feast on your life.”

(See Part I of The Most Romantic Poems of All Time)