Emily Dickinson’s “Hope” is the thing with feathers”

I’ve finished reading Emily Dickinson for a while, but I didn’t want to leave without noting what seems to me, though I haven’t seen it mentioned anywhere else, the importance of the “bird” symbol, or motif, in her poetry, and, in particular, the “robin.” The robin first appears in poem number “5:”

5

I have a Bird in spring
Which for myself doth sing —
The spring decoys.
And as the summer nears —
And as the Rose appears,
Robin is gone.

Yet do I not repine
Knowing that Bird of mine
Though flown —
Learneth beyond the sea
Melody new for me
And will return.

Fast is a safer hand
Held in a truer Land
Are mine —
And though they now depart,
Tell I my doubting heart
They’re thine.

In a serener Bright,
In a more golden light
I see
Each little doubt and fear,
Each little discord here
Removed.

Then will I not repine,
Knowing that Bird of mine
Though flown
Shall in a distant tree
Bright melody for me
Return.

Here the robin typically seems to represent the simple “joy,” the joy of song, which, though now gone, will certainly return with new joys.

Dickinson often seems to identify herself with the robin:

376

Of Course — I prayed —
And did God Care?
He cared as much as on the Air
A Bird — had stamped her foot —
And cried “Give Me” —
My Reason — Life —
I had not had — but for Yourself —
‘Twere better Charity
To leave me in the Atom’s Tomb —
Merry, and Nought, and gay, and numb —
Than this smart Misery.

Here, of course, it’s God, not Emily, that apparently compares Emily with the robin.

Sometimes Dickinson seems to project values onto the robin that, judging from her poetry, she holds dear:

828

The Robin is the One
That interrupt the Morn
With hurried — few — express Reports
When March is scarcely on —

The Robin is the One
That overflow the Noon
With her cherubic quantity —
An April but begun —

The Robin is the One
That speechless from her Nest
Submit that Home — and Certainty
And Sanctity, are best

The robin in the opening stanza is clearly identifiable with the robin that inhabits my backyard, but I suspect that the values expressed in the last stanza would be much more valuable to Dickinson than to my backyard inhabitants.

The robin in the following poem:

1483
The Robin is a Gabriel
In humble circumstances —
His Dress denotes him socially,
Of Transport’s Working Classes —
He has the punctuality
Of the New England Farmer —
The same oblique integrity,
A Vista vastly warmer —

A small but sturdy Residence
A self denying Household,
The Guests of Perspicacity
Are all that cross his Threshold —
As covert as a Fugitive,
Cajoling Consternation
By Ditties to the Enemy
And Sylvan Punctuation —

is hardly identifiable as a robin at all, but probably could be identified rather closely with values that Dickinson held quite dear, particularly “Guests of Perspicacity” and the “Sylvan Punctuation” she was unwilling to give up in order to be published.

If the robin is a “Gabriel,” he heralds spring:

1465

Before you thought of Spring
Except as a Surmise
You see — God bless his suddenness —
A Fellow in the Skies
Of independent Hues
A little weather worn
Inspiriting habiliments
Of Indigo and Brown —
With specimens of Song
As if for you to choose —
Discretion in the interval
With gay delays he goes
To some superior Tree
Without a single Leaf
And shouts for joy to Nobody
But his seraphic self —

And as the symbol of spring, he also seems to represent the joy of life reborn from “a superior Tree/ Without a single Leaf,” which one must imagine would appear somewhat cross like.

The more of Dickinson’s poems you read, the richer this symbol becomes, linking itself to many of her poems where there is no obvious reference to a bird:

254

“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.

Although Dickinson often identifies the robin with singing, this is one of the few places I found where she specifically links that singing to her concept of “Hope.”

It is this “lonesome Glee,” this “delight without a cause:”

774
It is a lonesome Glee —
Yet sanctifies the Mind —
With fair association —
Afar upon the Wind

A Bird to overhear
Delight without a Cause —
Arrestless as invisible —
A matter of the Skies.

that Dickinson seems to link to her own poetry. It as if the singing itself is enough to sanctify “the Mind.” even if there appears no cause for that glee to outsiders.

One suspects that it is not entirely coincidental that Dickinson almost invariably identifies the bird as “she” or “her:”

1585

The Bird her punctual music brings
And lays it in its place —
Its place is in the Human Heart
And in the Heavenly Grace —
What respite from her thrilling toil
Did Beauty ever take —
But Work might be electric Rest
To those that Magic make —

One could almost imagine that she sees this “punctual music” as a way of attaining “Heavenly Grace.”

Two poems that focus on the Bobolink instead of the usual robin seem to me to offer an interesting insight into Dickinson’s religious views:

324

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church —
I keep it, staying at Home —
With a Bobolink for a Chorister —
And an Orchard, for a Dome —

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice —
I just wear my Wings —
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton — sings.

God preaches, a noted Clergyman —
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at least —
I’m going, all along.

Are the wings the poet is wearing the wings of the Bobolink or the wings of an angel?

1591

The Bobolink is gone —
The Rowdy of the Meadow —
And no one swaggers now but me —
The Presbyterian Birds
Can now resume the Meeting
He boldly interrupted that overflowing Day
When supplicating mercy
In a portentous way
He swung upon the Decalogue
And shouted let us pray “

It’s a little hard to think of dear, sweet Emily as the “Rowdy of the Meadow,” but I really don’t think that it’s the Bobolink that blew off the “Presbyterian Birds,” do you?

It’s amazing to observe how this bird of “humble circumstances” becomes:

1265

The most triumphant Bird I ever knew or met
Embarked upon a twig today
And till Dominion set
I famish to behold so eminent a sight
And sang for nothing scrutable
But intimate Delight.
Retired, and resumed his transitive Estate —
To what delicious Accident
Does finest Glory fit!
“so eminent a sight” by the end of Emily’s works.

In fact, this humble bird was able to rise “beyond the estimate/ Of Envy, or of Men:”

798

She staked her Feathers — Gained an Arc —
Debated — Rose again —
This time — beyond the estimate
Of Envy, or of Men —

And now, among Circumference —
Her steady Boat be seen —
At home — among the Billows — As
The Bough where she was born —

For me, though, the most surprising depiction of the robin can be seen in:

328

A Bird came down the Walk —
He did not know I saw —
He bit an Angleworm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw,

And then he drank a Dew
From a convenient Grass —
And then hopped sidewise to the Wall
To let a Beetle pass —

He glanced with rapid eyes
That hurried all around —
They looked like frightened Beads, I thought —
He stirred his Velvet Head

Like one in danger, Cautious,
I offered him a Crumb
And he unrolled his feathers
And rowed him softer home —

Than Oars divide the Ocean,
Too silver for a seam —
Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon
Leap, plashless as they swim.

I don’t know about you, but that’s the way I’d like to live my life, bite an “Angleworm in halves,” eat “the fellow, raw” and, in the end, unroll my feathers and row myself to a “softer home.”

9 thoughts on “Emily Dickinson’s “Hope” is the thing with feathers”

  1. OK, Loren, this is all your fault. I found myself coming home from the library yesterday with the Complete Works Of Emily Dickinson. And for good measure, the works of Edwin Arlington Robinson. I should be finishing my new shop/potting shed, or planning my garden; instead I’ll be reading poetry!

  2. Personally, I’ve always believed in sharing my obsessions, Harry, though I will admit that gardening is another of my obsessions.

    I think I was so moved by Dickinson’s robin poems because for the first time in over thirty years I haven’t seen any robins around my yard, probably because it’s too small to support a robin and because no one around here, including me so far, has a garden where robins can find a few worms.

  3. Well. I’m changing my mind. I’m beginning to warm to Emily. See what you’ve done? Showing off her plumage to best advantage!

    Until I scrolled down to the picture I was imagining the European robin which is unrelated, apart from a passing resemblance in colour scheme. I think your robins are probably more like our thrushes or blackbirds in habits… but I’ll have to look into that.

    And of course I’m immediately reminded of Shelley’s poetry finder.

  4. Actually, Shelley’s poetry finder immediately came to my mind, too.

    However, I thought the reference might be too confusing to all the high school students who come here to find quick answers to their teacher’s questions, and, besides, I’m not sure Shelley wanted to be reminded of that attempt.

  5. Discovery of your excellent website has led me to a new appreciation of Emily Dickinson’s poems. Mention of this to my brother brought this response:

    “Last week I read a novel,’Box Socials’, by W.P. Kinsella. Kinsella, you may remember, also is the author of ‘Shoeless Joe’, made into the movie ‘Field of Dreams’. ‘Box Socials’ is set in the 1940s in the high plains of Western Alberta. In this very rural area west of Edmonton and east of Jasper, there’s an area of little hamlets where the people farm. They are mostly Norwegians in heritage but also there are a few Germans, Ukranians and others of varied ethnic backgrounds. Nearly all are poor. Socially and culturally isolated as they are, these folks band together often for whatever social occasions they can imagine and concoct. Cold, lonely country, for sure.

    Whenever they have a “social” there’s a local band that plays. And there’s this widow with some cultural pretensions who, when the band takes a break, likes to recite Emily Dickinson poems. One of the characters determines that any poem by E.D. can be sung to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” (This is not literally true of all Dickinson poems, though it accurately describes several).

    In one scene, as the widow begins her recitation, this guy slips over to an old piano in the corner and begins to play along with her. The crowd, many of which have learned the widow’s oft-recited poems by heart, picks up the beat and several of them begin to sing along:

    “I like to see it lap the miles
    And lick the valleys up,
    And stop to feed itself at tanks,
    And then, prodigious, step…”

    Irreverant, but funny!

  6. I loved your analysis on the Dickinson bird stuff. Have you read e.e. cummings’ bird poem? “may my heart always be open to little birds…” Try it. You’ll like it.

    Birds ahoy!

  7. Does anyone know the poem March winds shall blow, and we shall have snow, and what will the poor robin do then, poor thing?
    It goes on “it will hide his head under his wing, poor thing.”Would love to have the complete poem!

What do you think?