1 June 2023 Susannah

Emily Dickinson & ‘Hope’ is the Thing with Feathers

Bird flying off a branch

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.

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Featured image- Bird flying off a branch, https://www.pexels.com/photo/bird-flying-off-a-branch-15478201/
Body image- Daguerreotype of Emily Dickinson taken at Mount Holyoke, December 1846 or early 1847, By Unknown author – Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21206329

Comments (10)

  1. Penny Morris

    Thank you Susannah not only for the poem but the a capella link which is just beautiful.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      So glad you enjoyed the poems in these different ways.

  2. Maria

    Your newsletters are the only time I read poetry and your selections are consistently enjoyable. Thank you for this beauty. I envy birds their power of flight, which is a very hopeful endeavour indeed. Brilliant poem, beautifully read by Ms Stevenson and beautifully sung by the a capella choir.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I am so glad you have been enjoying my selection of poetry each month. I love poetry and often listen to it being read by some good actor. I am today going to be exploring Robert Burns country with my tour group – can’t wait, as he is one of my favourite poets ever!

  3. Janet

    To listen to a voice like Juliet Stevenson’s is a heavenly treat. Thank you.

    I love Harriet Walter’s voice, too. So much of the joy of listening to famous scripts or poems is enhanced by the speaker.
    Even a script full of banality like Succession when it is Harriet Walter speaking the halting words, it is a treat.

    The poem is lovely. I always admire the way a good poet can take an idea and turn it into something magical.

    I love in The Bell of Amherst when she says, “If I had more time, I could writ e a shorter letter.”

    Thanks you for both versions of the poem here.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      Yes, Juliet Stevenson has a superb voice. I agree that the quality of the reader hugely affects the enjoyment of the poem.
      I’d forgotten that wonderful quote about writing a shorter letter – thanks for reminding me of it.

      • Maria

        I’ve heard a similar quote about long and short letters attributed to Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde. Irrespective of who said it first, it is absolutely true and very amusing.

        • Susannah Fullerton

          I wonder who did say it originally. Yes, true and also funny!

  4. Margi Abraham

    I’ve always loved this poem and I definitely do not think it is just about a bird! It has plenty of dreaming room for the reader to think about what it means for them. I think it evokes the idea of Christian grace; our unearned forgiveness and love of God. But it is poem for anyone to hold onto when hope is hard to.
    It clearly inspired Max Porter’s sad and beautiful book, Grief is the Thing With Feathers, which also has poetry as well as prose.

    • Susannah Fullerton

      I didn’t know about Max Porter’s book, so thanks for the recommendation, Margi.
      I agree – far more than just a poem about a bird. One about that elusive and most important thing, hope which we can cling to in difficult times.

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