Very, very few of Emily Dickinson’s poems were published in her lifetime. My choice of poem this month is ‘Hope’ is the Thing with Feathers and it was added to one of her hand-sewn fascicles around 1861. It was first published in 1891.
Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886) was a strange poet, spending much of her life in her room, writing tiny and usually untitled poems and sending them as little gifts. I’ve been lucky enough to visit her house in Amherst, Massachusetts, as well as the house next door where her brother and sister-in-law lived.
You might enjoy a book which speculates that Dickinson suffered from epilepsy (then considered something deeply shameful) called Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and her Family’s Feuds by Lyndall Gordon who is an excellent biographer. I found the speculations fascinating.
This poem is like a hymn. In its use of the bird as an extended metaphor, Hope does not disappear when it faces storms of hardship, but sings on. Hope asks nothing, not a crumb, of people, and yet it can literally and figuratively keep people alive. We must all value our capacity to hope.
Dickinson has capitalised common nouns such as Hope, Bird and Extremity, she makes a generous use of dashes which give a staccato rhythm and a sense of breathlessness to the poem. Dickinson’s poems are often enigmatic, and this one is no exception. Is it reassessing Christianity (with which she had a complex and troubled relationship), is she comparing the interior world with the exterior, a reminder that Hope requires very little of people, or is it, as some critics have suggested, simply a poem about a bird?
‘Hope’ is the Thing with Feathers by 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.
The poem has been set to music for choirs and by the band ‘Trailer Bride’. Do listen to it recited by Juliet Stevenson:
And here’s an a capella version to enjoy :
Did you enjoy this poem? Let me know by leaving a comment.
The Poetry Archive: Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson House
Susannah Fullerton: Emily Dickinson & Because I could not stop for death
Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds by Lyndall Gordon
Hope is the Thing with Feathers: The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson by Emily Dickinson