Pushing the Bounds of Understanding With Hope

Looking at Emily Dickinson’s poem “Hope is the thing with feathers” and just what it says about the emotional human experience within the physical world.

Emily Dickinson’s poem “Hope is the thing with feathers” is a composition that focuses on the emotion of hope. What is it? How does it work? The entire poem is a series of metaphors, as Dickinson uses regular objects and things to better explain just what hope is. Hope is this thing that exists within the soul of all humans, singing out of them as best as it can, especially so during all the hardships of life. This is a poem that is meant to inspire its readers, to make them feel optimistic and hopeful towards life– that hope can always live inside them and push them forward through difficulties. First we will use a strict formalist approach based solely on the text itself and the meanings that can be pulled from what is found there. Then we will move on to more of a historically based argument that is founded on Emily Dickinson’s own life experiences and how those events led to her creating this poem in 1861. Afterwards, the two different approaches will come together to create a more complete and diverse understanding of this poem.

This poem’s meter scheme is really interesting with a stressed/unstressed/unstressed/ stressed/unstressed/stressed pattern in the first line which seems unusual as it’s quite the change and shift in style. This is especially true considering the fact that the rest of the poem is in regular iambic pattern of unstressed/stressed, switching back and forth from trimeter to tetrameter. This switch from one meter to the next creates an almost melodic feeling in the poem; this swinging back and forth. This unique meter style changes how we read and understand the poem, setting apart the first line from the rest of the composition. 

Historically, trimeter has been a commonly used meter length; it is “generally used in Greek tragedy and comedy in places where a single character was speaking (as opposed to choral passages)”(Literary Devices 3). With tetrameter, it is often “used in English and Scottish traditional ballads, which are usually composed of four-line stanzas of alternating iambic tetrameter and trimeter”(Marriam-Webster). As this poem is a four line stanza switching back and forth between tetrameter and trimeter we can assume that, even though it is not iambic in pattern, Dickinson is trying to make a ballad, a spoken poem or song that tells a story. This allows us to further understand the rhythm and pattern of this poem and how it is meant to be read, creating connections with various lines in the poem such as with the case of the line “And sings the tune without the words”(Dickinson, 30).

Another part that changes the reader’s perceptions of the poem is the rhyme scheme. The first stanza has no rhyme scheme in it, just four different and distinct lines; the four lines of the second stanza have an ABAB rhyme scheme; the third and last stanza has a mixed rhyme scheme as the first line is separate and clear but the other three lines rhyme with one another and, due to that, are connected in their meaning. This gives the poem a different and unique feeling, connecting different lines to one another, but keeping many things distinct. This pushes forward the idea that this poem has one central theme, but displays various parts of that theme in comparison with the human experience.

The first stanza addresses the theme of the poem and what is connected to it, as to just what hope is and what actions it takes:

“Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,”(30)

In this first stanza, hope is presented as an emotion personified. It is a bird who sits in the human soul, singing tunes all day and night, never stopping. It is interesting that Dickinson related hope to a bird; she is taking something that we are familiar with and presenting it to us in a new way. Hope is not just an emotion, but it is a living thing that exists in our souls. It is an active player as well, as it always sings a tune. It is interesting that Dickinson clarifies that the tune has no words- this presents the emotion of hope as a consistent thing; it does not matter what the hope is born from. Things can change in your life- you can gain new wishes, dreams, and goals that each create hope, but in the end the feeling is the same as it has always been: it is constantly humming deep inside you, as shown by the line that it ‘never stops at all’. 

One can picture the intensity of the song changing often, but in the end it is the same continuous tune that plays throughout our lives. Another interesting clarification Dickinson makes in this first stanza is the emphasis on how ‘hope is the thing with feathers’, we find out from this poem that hope is a bird, so why did she feel the need to mention its feathers? Perhaps to direct our attention to a usually ignored detail. Feathers are soft and interconnected, but more importantly they are essential to the flight of a bird. Without their feathers, a bird can not take off in flight. One can look at these feathers in the guise of this poem about hope and see them as the new ideas that are created in the life of a human. For a while, those ideas are the things that are keeping the bird (hope) in flight. But, one day those ideas will grow old and weary, beginning to fall off the wings of the bird. Then, in place of those missing ideas and dreams, new ones are created and the bird is once again able to fly. The poem creates the belief that the bird is the source of the song, while the feathers are the ideas and dreams that allow the melody to truly shine through a human being. 

Something else that is interesting is the use of the word ‘perches’. The Oxford Lexico Dictionary states that perch is, “A thing on which a bird alights or roosts, typically a branch or a horizontal rod or bar in a birdcage…A place where someone or something rests or sits, especially a place that is high or precarious.” This allows the reader to further develop what this first stanza is getting at. Hope does not always just stay in the soul; it rests there, but when the feathers grow back, it leaves the soul and goes outwards, shining through the human and found out in the world around them. It is an active thing that does not merely stay in its nest, but instead goes and connects with the world around it.

The second stanza turns the focus away from hope (the bird) and its actions and instead focuses on the actions of the world around it that affects it:

“And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.”(30)

The Oxford Lexico Dictionary defines ‘gale’ as “A very strong wind…A storm at sea…A burst of sound, especially laughter”. The song of the bird (of hope) is strongest when it is facing the difficulties of the world. Here is the bird, flying through the sky, singing its usual tune. Suddenly, a gust of wind comes and tries to pull the bird away from its path through the air. Maybe it even pulls out a few feathers or tries to make it fall to the ground, permanently injured. Often hopes are born from dreams or goals that one has created. Determined to reach it, they walk or even run down the path that will allow them to reach it the quickest. But the world is there, blowing back against that human’s wishes and dreams. The person, now facing obstacles, begins to push their hopes even further in response, their efforts becoming stronger as does the song. Even the last definition fits well as oftentimes one’s hope faces the mockery and laughter of others who look down on it as a pitiful or ridiculous thing. But, the bird (hope) keeps on flying, but though it keeps on flying it is not invulnerable. 

The Oxford Lexico Dictionary defines the word ‘abash’ as to, “Make (someone) feel embarrassed, disconcerted, or ashamed.” The bird still exists, but when a truly terrible event pushes back against it, the human that has sent out that bird (that hope) into the world can begin to feel ashamed and can even begin to look down on that little bird themselves. The bird (hope) is a warm and living thing that alights the soul, and when it is allowed to fly out into the world, it brings that warmth to others, inspiring them. But, when the human who sends out that hope into the world experiences terrible blowback and begins to second guess or look down on their hope, it begins to dim. The feathers may even begin to fall off and the bird may return to its roost in the human’s soul. But, as stated before, though the feathers may fall away and new ones may grow, the bird’s singing is a constant thing.

The third and last stanza meshes together the meanings of the first two stanzas, focusing on the effects of the world but also the actions of the bird itself:

“I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.”(30)

Continuing on from what the last stanza spoke about, not only has the bird endured storms and mocking gales but it has also flown over cold lands–causing one to picture a frozen wasteland, where nothing of use or purpose is found, the bird (hope) surviving on nothing. It has even flown over ‘the strangest sea’, shown as this endless area with seemingly no place for the bird to land in its flight. It doesn’t get to rest, causing it to grow more and more tired with every beat of its wings. Hope has existed in the human being through all oppositions in life, from the extremes of a frozen wasteland to the endless flow of water with nowhere to land, a strange and mysterious place that is unknown and unfamiliar to the bird. Yet, the bird continues to fly and sing (the hope continues to exist, going out into the world around it), and is a selfless creature. It exists in a person and is put through so much, yet in the end it never truly asks for anything around it, not even a ‘crumb’. It is simply there to exist, to inspire the human that it was born in, and to help them through life–not to gain anything for itself from existence.

In her essay on this poem, Kate Choi writes about the fact that in Greek Mythology, hope is the only thing that is left in Pandora’s box after it was opened and all the evils of the world were released, thereby helping humankind survive the world around them by holding onto that hope. She writes about Dickinson’s fascinations with “the ‘Circumference,’ the boundary where the reality that we know meets that of the sublime–God, for example”(Choi 2). Cynthia Griffin Wolff in her book Emily Dickinson spoke of this poem and how ‘hope’ may be a symbol of Christ, but in the end she denied this fact as there was nothing implicit in the poem that would connect Hope with Christ; instead she pushed that it was more about human talent and their love for music and poetry. These two scholars’ statements coincide with what history knows about Emily Dickinson’s life. It is through studying Emily Dickinson’s life and the poem ‘hope is the thing with feathers’ that two directions come to mind.

In his book Emily Dickinson, Harold Bloom writes about how her family had puritan roots and yet were not very religious. “…Emily herself never accepted Christ or the doctrine of innate sin”(Bloom 11). In his book Emily Dickinson, Denis Donoghue writes that, upon Emily’s first meeting with her dear friend Thomas Wentworth Higginson, “She spoke of finding ‘ecstasy in living’”(Donoghue 5). Her home life was not a warm one, with a strict and militaristic father and an invalid mother due to paralysis who she took care of often.

Emily’s father, Edward Dickinson, was a prominent and public figure and a treasurer at Amherst College- he even served as a member in politics as a Whig and was often seen as strict and harsh to those around him. In 1847, Emily went to school at the Mount Holyoke Female Seminary where she encountered various religion topics and areas of study such as Grammar. As for her mother, Emily once wrote to Higginson that, “‘Could you tell me what home is…I never had a mother. I suppose a mother is one to whom you hurry when you are troubled’”(Donaghue 6). In 1862, she wrote to Higginson about how distant her family was; how her mother was not there at all for her and how her father was often busy- all she had was her two siblings: William and Lavinia. It was in 1861 that Emily wrote ‘hope is the thing with feathers’. Emily Dickinson lived in solitude with a few close friends and was often broiled in familial drama, but mostly kept to herself in her house until her death in 1886, unknown as a writer until after her passing.

Though Emily Dickinson was not naturally religious in her own actions and life, many of her poems do reference God or religion, though she was often torn. In 1846, she said, “‘I have perfect confidence in God & his promises & yet I know not why, I feel that the world holds a predominant place in my affections’”(Donoghue 15). It cannot be a coincidence that both Kate Choi and Cynthia Griffin Wolff saw religious connotations in the poem itself. Choi focused on the Greek Mythos aspect of the poem with the story of Pandora’s box and the importance of hope, but didn’t really connect it to her argument. Wolff focused more on the connection of Christ, but brushed it off as Christianity is not directly mentioned in this poem. I can see why she brushed off her theory about Christ as Emily Dickinson did struggle with religion, but she was well-versed in the topic and often referenced religious stories in her poems. A possible religious connection could be between the bird and the dove in which the Holy Ghost is often symbolized as in the Bible, as a being resting in the soul and bringing hope and peace as he is “the Comforter”(John 14:26).

As mentioned before, this poem was written in 1861 when Emily Dickinson was young and felt alone amidst her family. Her mother was rarely attentive to her at this time(they would only become close in later years) and her father was always busy. She had her siblings, but even with them she was often left on her own. While she loved to learn and her father bought her books, he “‘begs me not to read them–because he fears they joggle the Mind’”(Donoghue 6). Even in learning and gaining knowledge, she was often left on her own to find truth and understanding. She did not feel like the house around her was a home. This understanding leads to an interesting realization about this poem. As stated before when speaking about meters, this is written like a ballad or a Greek tragedy where one person is speaking. This poem only has one character involved in the story; the speaker and the bird that rests inside their soul. It is through this study of Emily Dickinson’s life that a theme of self-reliance begins to connect to the poem itself.

This poem was written shortly after the Transcendentalism Period that flourished during the 1820s, 30s, and 40s in America with writers like Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. The works of these writers were incredibly popular during this time. They focused on emotional experiences; on the individual and the existence of nature. This influence is clearly seen in this Emily Dickinson poem. The main personified object is a bird and what it fights against are the storms and the cold of the world around it. There is the focus on the emotion of hope that is the theme of this entire poem as well as the importance of the human soul which is where the bird sits day in and day out. It has a very spiritual focus, if not a religious focus. It focuses on the soul and the power that it holds, and how the soul pushes through the harsh world around it. 

In his book, when speaking about the life of Emily Dickinson, Denis Donoghue quotes Emerson from his work “Circles”, stating that “‘The life of man is a self-evolving circle, which, from a ring imperceptibly small, rushes on all sides outwards to new and larger circles, and that without end’”(Donoghue 23). This idea aligns closely with Dickinson’s belief of ‘Circumference’ from the idea that Cynthia Griffin Wolff pushed in her book- of this idea of the boundary where what we know meets God. An interesting fact to mention here is that no one else in this entire poem is mentioned; only the individual which carries the bird of hope within its soul and the overall world. 

In Emerson’s work entitled “Self-Reliance”, he pushes forward the idea that the world around us can affect the growth of one’s soul. This idea matches perfectly with what Emily Dickinson is saying in this poem. Here is this person, carrying hope in their very soul and being bombarded by “gales” and “storms”, being surrounded by “the chillest land” and “the strangest Sea”, and yet it continues and “sings the tune without the words, And never stops at all”(30). Hope is a human emotion, it is something that Emily Dickinson is trying to better understand with this poem as she takes a philosophical emotion and makes it concrete by personifying it. 

Through writing this poem, Dickinson is trying to broaden the Circumference of the human mind and the human knowledge, something that she had actively spent her life trying to do, “This was her way. She tested everything, whether it was given by experience or imagination”(Donoghue 14). This poem is truly herinvestigation in trying to better understand the human experience by pushing against the boundary that exists between what humans know and what God knows. There is an intense connection between God in this poem, and while the connection to the Holy Ghost or Christ is still up for debate, there is definitely a connection to the bird of hope in this poem and the soul that it inhabits that comes from God.

When looking at this poem in a strict formalist viewpoint, it is clear that Dickinson has shown us the emotion of hope in a new and unique way, taking the emotion that all human beings have experienced and personifying it so that they may better learn and understand just what the purpose of hope is. With a unique metric pattern and rhyme scheme that seems flighty in appearance, it further adds to the image of hope as a bird shown in the poem. Hope is a living and breathing thing whose home is the human soul; it sings all day and night long from its nest. Then, when feathers (ideas and dreams) begin to grow from it, it takes flight into the air, leaving its home in the soul and flying out into the world, down the path that will allow it to reach the goals that gave it flight. Oftentimes the things of the world will push back, wild and terrible winds trying to blow the hopes off course or damage them, keeping them from flying. Or the gales of mocking laughter lead the human to feeling embarrassed and ashamed, seeing its hope as weak and small and causing the warmth of hope to dim. Hope constantly lives and continues to sing its songs through the many extremes of life, it’s only purpose being to exist in the souls of the human that it was born in, to inspire those around that person. Hope is a truly selfless creature. 

This poem argues the necessary and important role that hope plays in the lives of humans. It is hope that motivates them to go forward in life, to pursue their goals and dreams. Hope inspires them and others to make their own lives what they wish for it to be. This poem pushes the idea that they should not take hope for granted, as, without hope– without motivation –what would each human being truly accomplish? What would humankind be like without hope? That is an image not worth imagining as it is full of emptiness, keeping humanity static in being. Hope brings about change, in both the human it is born in and the humans that it touches when it decides to take flight. Hope is truly at the center of human existence and growth. No wonder it was the last thing left in Pandora’s box and was able to keep humanity moving forward.

In the second interpretation, there is a clear connection between the events of Emily Dickinson’s life when she wrote this poem in 1861 as well as the Transcendentalist environment that she existed in. There is a definite religious and spiritual connection to the bird of hope that perches in the human soul, connecting the emotion to God and possibly even to the Holy Ghost as the dove of comfort. Transcendentalist scholars and writers pushed forward the idea of the individual separating from the world around them that can negatively affect their soul(especially important considering that the America Civil War is happening as Emily Dickinson is writing this poem), focusing on nature, and gaining knowledge from their own emotions and experiences. That is what Emily Dickinson spent her entire life doing from her birth in 1829. 

She grew up alone without loving parents truly being there to support and assist her through the society that she lived in. As she tried to better understand the world around her, she became more and more self-reliant so that she could better combat the miseries of the world around her. Through her own choice, she distanced herself from the world around her, staying inside her home and spending her days writing about various different topics such as nature, immortality, death, love, religion, and emotions so as to come to terms and create some understanding of the world around her and her soul. This was all her effort to gradually push the boundary that existed between what she knew and what God knew.

In the first part of the essay, there was a focus on a strict formalist approach to analyzing and understanding Emily Dickinson’s poem “hope is the thing with feathers”. Using this approach made it so that the text itself would be the foundation of this entire essay. Then, there was a focus on a historical approach through studying Emily Dickinson’s life and the environment that she grew up in and wrote in- the Transcendentalist Period. In this poem, Dickinson is taking the familiar emotion of hope and allowing the audience to see it in a new and different way so that it could be better studied and understood. The metric pattern is written like a ballad, spoken by a single character as they tell a story. Hope resides in the human soul and sings non-stop so as to help the human it is found in better combat the storms and gales that occur around it as society tries to destroy that precious bird that just wishes to exist. It is there to inspire, truly selfless in every way.

Emily Dickinson wrote this poem at a time when she was truly alone and had to support herself as her family was not there to help her. She was influenced by the writings of people like Emerson and Thoreau who pushed that the individual should escape from the world around them and become self-reliant so that they can begin to better understand the world as it pertains to them. She lived this belief her entire life, distancing herself from the world as she stayed in her home, never marrying or having children, and simply living the life she wished to live. She spent her days writing poems in the hopes that they would help enlarge the knowledge and understanding that she had gained over the decades of her life. She pushed against the very boundary of Circumference that existed between her mind and God’s with this poem and all of her other writings, treating her entire life as if it was an experiment- all based on the hope that one day she would truly understand herself and the world around her.

Link to the poem(if you want to read it fully yourself)


Works Cited

Bloom, Harold. Emily Dickinson. Facts on File, Inc, 1999. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip&db=nlebk&AN=38581&site=eds-live&scope=site. Accessed 8 Apr. 2020.

Choi, Kate. “‘Hope’ Is the Thing with Feathers.” Stone Soup, July 2019, p. 26. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip&db=f5h&AN=136763994&site=eds-live&scope=site. Accessed 6 Apr. 2020.

Dickinson, Emily. “Hope is the thing with feathers.” 101 Great American Poems, edited by Paul Negri, Dover Publications Inc., 1998, pp. 30. Accessed 8 Mar. 2020.

Donoghue, Denis. Emily Dickinson : University of Minnesota Pamphlets on American Writers No. 81, University of Minnesota Press, 1969. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/byui/detail.action?docID=310879. Accessed 7 Apr. 2020.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “Self-Reliance.” Emerson Central, https://emersoncentral.com/texts/essays-first-series/self-reliance/. Accessed 8 Apr. 2020.

“English Dictionary, Thesaurus, & Grammar Help.” Lexico Dictionaries | English, Lexico Dictionaries, http://www.lexico.com. Accessed 8 Mar. 2020.

“Explanation of: ‘Hope Is the Thing with Feathers’ by Emily Dickinson.” LitFinder Contemporary Collection, Gale, 2007. Gale Literature: LitFinder, https://link-gale-com.byui.idm.oclc.org/apps/doc/LTF0000000271CE/LITF?u=byuidaho&sid=LITF&xid=e2b3d59a. Accessed 6 Apr. 2020.

History.com Editors. “Transcendentalism.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 15 Nov. 2017, http://www.history.com/topics/19th-century/transcendentalism. Accessed 8 Apr. 2020.

“John 14.” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, http://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/scriptures/nt/john/14?lang=eng. Accessed 8 Apr. 2020.

“Tetrameter.” Merriam-Webster’s Encyclopedia of Literature, Jan. 1995, p. N.PAG. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip&db=b6h&AN=17243922&site=eds-live&scope=site. Accessed 6 Apr. 2020.“Trimeter Examples and Definition.” Literary Devices, 18 Mar. 2016, http://www.literarydevices.com/trimeter/. Accessed 6 Apr. 2020.