“Hope” Is The Thing With Feathers – Emily Dickinson, an Analysis


Sounds about right… hopes flying away and all that… 🙂

Gut Reaction
Oh okay, maybe not so negative then, hope is the one thing that always keeps going no matter what? And I was so determined to be miserable…

What does it all mean?

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
Hope is something that takes flight, soars, does the very thing us humans envy birds for. Making ‘hope’ a bird gives a sense of freedom and escape. Feathers – warmth, security, comfort? A duvet on wings!

That perches in the soul –
Hope is something everlasting, that you don’t give up on, and ‘perching in the soul’, hope is where our true ‘self’ is, that part of us that is really ‘us’, that part where the better version of ourselves resides. We all hope for that, don’t we? Or, cynically. Hope clings to our ‘soul’ like a raven digging its talons in, awaiting its next kill. Hope survives, even when we don’t want it to. You might call that delusion I suppose. And if you don’t know what I mean, you’ve never done the dance of pining after someone that you know full well you can never have, and repeating endlessly to yourself that you’ve given up on them, only for that spiteful spark of hope flickering back to life just when you are recovering.

And sings the tune without the words –
A tune without words. Like a soundtrack to your life? Hearing the music but not the lyrics? That all purpose desire for life that keeps us motivated to reach our goals, exceed our expectations, be our happiest. If you like. How about…the tune without the words being our subconscious mind. The things that drive us unwittingly, to react the way we do, behave certain ways, have fears we know no basis for and generally create this semi-comatose existence that we meander through. I do believe hope is a squatter here, leaving its own misdirections for trails we can fall down on.

And never stops – at all –
It never stops. You are always guided to something, by hope, by subconscious thoughts, by whatever. The separated ‘-at all’ feels like reinforcement of the point, and if you want to be jolly about it you can say it is a relief almost to know that hope will always be there, no matter what. If you don’t wish to be jolly, come join my cynical brigade – that thing you secretly hope for even when you tell yourself you don’t, even though you know it will never, ever happen, it will never leave you. If you’re lucky it might lay dormant for a brief reprieve but it never. Ever. Stops.

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
Is Gale personified to suggest that the ‘strong wind’ that ruffles our feathers and threatens to ground us most is actually other people? That the ‘sweetest’ song comes from struggle, emerging like a Maglite beam in a dank dark cellar? That is a very hopeful message, is it not? That even in bad times hope is still there, to light the way, to guide us, and what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, right? Things are ‘worth the wait’? If you say so. Just so you know, if it isn’t already blatantly clear, the phrases ‘be patient’ and ‘think positively’ are ones that are never uttered in my presence in fear of a good flick to the ear.

And sore must be the storm –
…bad storm then. Or awful, painful circumstances, terrible person, that kind of scenario…

That could abash the little Bird
Again, personification of Bird here as hope. In other words, it would truly be something terrible to make hope up sticks and abandon all.

That kept so many warm –
So does this mean the person who has this never ending hope supports others and that by keeping their own hope alive they help others? Some kind of patriarchal figure. Or does this mean many people are being hopeful about a particular thing? Are we not now talking about hope at all but faith? Does this bird now represent religion and the hope that it brings so many people?

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –

Hope is everywhere.

Yet – never – in Extremity,
And even when circumstances were dire, or at their worst?

It asked a crumb – of me.
Now this could be interesting. Either hope itself, the ability to hope, is ingrained and doesn’t need anything in return. Or, if we are using the bird metaphor, well, are we saying we never have to feed hope (‘crumb’) because it is always there? Again, does this allude to the faith that comes hand in hand with religion?

Form – the vaguely technical stuff
Division and order
Three stanzas of four lines (aniambic trimeter).

Depends on how you look at it. Hopeful is probably the theme it is going for.

Suggested rhyme scheme

*brackets for near/imperfect rhyme.

Interesting that in this version, most of the lines are ended with a hyphen rather than the traditional end stopped or run on lines, as though the writer – or perhaps in this case, the publisher – is trying to make a statement of each line or is having a run on thought that is being adding to. For a more ‘typical layout’ see here. Both masculine and feminine rhyme are present.

Similes and metaphors
Hope, feathers, Bird, ‘the tune without the words’, Gale.

Author’s relationship with their subject
Um. Nurturing, hopeful, there almost feels like a sense of awe from the writer of this thing called hope.

Other points of view (ideas from other sources)
This poem is one of Dickinson’s earlier works and I think it is a good starting point if you want to analyse her particular writing technique in relying heavily on metaphors – think about the number of metaphors present in this relatively short poem.
Dickinson’s work has a religious undertone and there seems to be a fixation on death and immortality. Half rhymes are made use of in many of her pieces. And even if you can’t get to grips with the relative simplicity of her words that are shadowed in alleged hidden meanings, you can enjoy a peak into a world so very different from ours and yet completely comparable to today in a number of ways.

Signing off
Emily Dickinson is my new hero on account of her feeling that marriage and housework are Very Bad Things. My own take on this poem being about a sort of…resigned disdain for hope as it never sets you free, is unintentionally belittling to her spirit – it doesn’t appear that she was daft enough to set her hopes on some unrequited love. Not all of us are so wise unfortunately.

Still, I suppose you feel what you feel and you can’t avoid that. So on that note. Maybe hope is the place where we get too comfortable. Maybe hope is that thing that we know will make us feel alive, we have these beautiful wings we can fly away on, but instead the feathers are warm and comfortable and wouldn’t it just be easier to do what we’re already doing? Hope can either set you free, or suffocate you. Do with it what you will.

Poetry Foundation

Spark Notes


When I read this I think of the song… Free As A Bird


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