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:”


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

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

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:


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:


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:


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:


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:


“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:”


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:”


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:


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?


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:


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:”


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:


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.”

Dickinson’s “There is no Frigate like a Book”

After finally finishing all 1,175 of Emily Dickinson’s poems, I’m still left trying to make sense out of what I read. Too bad I’m no longer interested in formal education because I suspect I could actually have written a PHD thesis on Dickinson’s poems. Joe Duemer’s response to one of my earlier comments on Dickinson’s poetry inspired me to buy Emily Dickinson: A Collection of Critical Essays, part of New Century Views, a series apparently inspired by Twentieth Century Views, a favorite of mine because it offered such a wide range of views on an author. The 18 articles in this collection, which I’ve only had time to glance at so far, will probably inspire me to come back to Dickinson later.

Unfortunately, writing about Dickinson may serve more as a Rorschach test than as an accurate analysis of her ideas. Although our basic philosophies seem quite different, there is still much in her poetry I love. One of my favorite themes that continues to emerge in the later poems is the idea that the whole world can be found in the proverbial grain of sand:

By homely gift and hindered Words
The human heart is told
Of Nothing —
“Nothing” is the force
That renovates the World “

We tend to overlook the small, everyday things we do for each other, focusing, instead, on the “special,” “dramatic,” events in our life. Perhaps we should focus on the small, everyday things that people do for each other and the inarticulate ways we try to express our abiding love for one another. It is this kind of love that “renews” the world.

We do not have to sacrifice this life for a future life:

The Life we have is very great.
The Life that we shall see
Surpasses it, we know, because
It is Infinity.
But when all Space has been beheld
And all Dominion shown
The smallest Human Heart’s extent
Reduces it to none.

Life after death may well dwarf the life we have lived here on earth, but the human heart’s reach dwarfs time and space itself.

Refusing to accept the idea that earthly happiness should be sacrificed for heavenly success, Dickinson continually links heaven, and infinity, to now:

Who has not found the Heaven — below —
Will fail of it above —
For Angels rent the House next ours,
Wherever we remove “

Those who sacrifice this life for “eternal happiness” may well be incapable of finding true happiness at all. If we cannot find joy in God’s miracles here on earth, how can we hope to find happiness in Heaven?

Dickinson also seems to question the concept of “original sin” or, perhaps, the idea that our life is by its very nature “sinful,” and, thus, unhappy:

Of God we ask one favor,
That we may be forgiven —
For what, he is presumed to know —
The Crime, from us, is hidden —
Immured the whole of Life
Within a magic Prison
We reprimand the Happiness
That too competes with Heaven.

Though there’s certainly plenty of speculation about death and loss in Dickinson’s poetry, there are also innumerable paeans to nature:

The saddest noise, the sweetest noise,
The maddest noise that grows, —
The birds, they make it in the spring,
At night’s delicious close.

Between the March and April line —
That magical frontier
Beyond which summer hesitates,
Almost too heavenly near.

It makes us think of all the dead
That sauntered with us here,
By separation’s sorcery
Made cruelly more dear.

It makes us think of what we had,
And what we now deplore.
We almost wish those siren throats
Would go and sing no more.

An ear can break a human heart
As quickly as a spear,
We wish the ear had not a heart
So dangerously near.

Joy and pain often seem inseparable in Dickinson’s poetry, just as they do in life itself. This constant tension between joy and sorrow is part of what makes Dickinson’s poetry so remarkably rich.

For Dickinson, of course, poetry itself seems to make everyday life so rich:

There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry —
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll —
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears the Human soul.

Perhaps it is this very belief in the power of poetry, a power accessible to all, that most ties me to Dickinson’s works.

Emily’s “When they come back — if Blossoms do –“

Having gotten to poem number 1113 in The Complete Poems, I’m beginning to see some differences between what Dickinson seems to have believed and how she’s often presented to the public. The “nun of Amherst,” is quite often presented as supremely confident of her relationship to God and assured of her place in heaven:

I never saw a Moor —
I never saw the Sea —
Yet know I how the Heather looks
And what a Billow be.

I never spoke with God
Nor visited in Heaven —
Yet certain am I of the spot
As if the Checks were given —

Certainly there is a sense of reassurance, even a sort of comfortable logic, in poems like these. It’s difficult to see these poems in exactly the same light, though, after you’ve been exposed to poems like:

The Soul’s distinct connection
With immortality
Is best disclosed by Danger
Or quick Calamity —

As Lightning on a Landscape
Exhibits Sheets of Place —
Not yet suspected — but for Flash —
And Click — and Suddenness.

Now it might just be my own doubts about death, religion, or immortality, but I find poems like this more moving than the assurance suggested by “I never saw a Moor” Any intimations of immortality I have ever had have been as brief, as sudden, perhaps even as dangerous, as shapes briefly exposed in lightning storms.

At times Dickinson even seems to argue that “want,” and there’s every sign that she had more than enough of that in her life, not “satisfaction,” is man’s real link to immortality:

Satisfaction — is the Agent
Of Satiety —
Want — a quiet Commissary
For Infinity.

To possess, is past the instant
We achieve the Joy —
Immortality contented
Were Anomaly.

Like Emily, I can’t get no satisfaction, and it’s a darn good thing because that forces me to look for real meaning in my life, not to settle for possess-ions, but to long for some more meaningful contact with the universe.

On my worst days, Leslie tells me I even resemble:

The Sky is low — the Clouds are mean.
A Travelling Flake of Snow
Across a Barn or through a Rut
Debates if it will go —

A Narrow Wind complains all Day
How some one treated him
Nature, like Us is sometimes caught
Without her Diadem.

Hey, if you go back a few days, you can probably hear the howling in these pages.

Right now, though, it appears to be Spring here in Tacoma and, thus, I find myself resonating mostly to this poem:

When they come back — if Blossoms do —
I always feel a doubt
If Blossoms can be born again
When once the Art is out —

When they begin, if Robins may,
I always had a fear
I did not tell, it was their last Experiment
Last Year,

When it is May, if May return,
Had nobody a pang
Lest in a Face so beautiful
He might not look again?

If I am there — One does not know
What Party — One may be
Tomorrow, but if I am there
I take back all I say —

Of course, I’m due for a six-months checkup on my throat cancer in the next few weeks, and, despite the fact that I’m feeling the best I have in a year or two, it’s hard to avoid doubts about how long I’m going to still be here to enjoy all of this beauty.

It’s hard to worry too long, though, when sunny skies reign overhead and crocus leaves struggle to emerge from the cold ground. Spring makes me feel like:

My Cocoon tightens — Colors tease —
I’m feeling for the Air —
A dim capacity for Wings
Demeans the Dress I wear —

A power of Butterfly must be —
The Aptitude to fly
Meadows of Majesty implies
And easy Sweeps of Sky —

So I must baffle at the Hint
And cipher at the Sign
And make much blunder, if at least
I take the clue divine “

Emily Dickinson’s “The Loneliness One dare not sound”

I’m unsure whether it’s better to read Emily Dickinson’s Complete Poems or to settle for a “selected” version of the poems. Truthfully, reading 1775 poems by any poet can be mind-numbing. After spending much of the week reading her collected poems, I’m only up to poem 826. Although I often “speed-read” books of poetry, stopping only to meditate on those that truly interest me, Dickinson’s poems are generally too dense to read this way. Speed reading makes you feel like you’re reading gibberish, which, of course, defeats the point of speed reading.

Despite having owned the Complete Poems since college and despite several previous attempts, I’ve never managed to sit down and read all 716 pages. As a result, I’ve largely known Dickinson through poems others have selected. For me, the greatest advantage of reading the entire works is that it allows me to see favorite poems in a new light, and doing so gives me a greater understanding and appreciation of those poems. Nearly half the poems I mentioned in my first entry were poems I’d never encountered before, and, although they were probably not as “good” as poems I had read before, they allowed me to gain a new perspective on more famous poems I admired.

Obviously one cannot assume that any poem is autobiographical, but at the very least the subject of an author’s poems would seem to reveal ideas that are important to the writer. If that assumption is true, than one of Dickinson’s themes is the idea of entrapment, of being bound by a system over which she has little control:

They shut me up in Prose —
As when a little Girl
They put me in the Closet —
Because they liked me “still” —

Still! Could themself have peeped —
And seen my Brain — go round —
They might as wise have lodged a Bird
For Treason — in the Pound —

Himself has but to will
And easy as a Star
Abolish his Captivity —
And laugh — No more have I “

Of course there’s no way of knowing if Emily ever suffered such a punishment, and one would certainly hope not. In fact, the poem may merely have been inspired by the old cliche that “a child should be seen not heard.” Be that as it may, it’s obvious Dickinson resented the very idea of “Captivity,” and in the end felt any attempts to silence her were in vain because, like the Bird, her Brain had learned to sing, had learned to abolish her “Captivity.”

The same idea of trying to escape from captivity is found in:

Could I but ride indefinite
As doth the Meadow Bee
And visit only where I liked
And No one visit me

And flirt all Day with Buttercups
And marry whom I may
And dwell a little everywhere
Or better, run away

With no Police to follow
Or chase Him if He do
Till He should jump Peninsulas
To get away from me —

I said “But just to be a Bee”
Upon a Raft of Air
And row in Nowhere all Day long
And anchor “off the Bar”

What Liberty! So Captives deem
Who tight in Dungeons are.

Anyone reading the complete works realizes that the “bee” and “butterfly” are important symbols in Dickinson’s poetry. And at least in this poem it’s clear that what she admires about the bee is its freedom. The bee can “flirt all Day,” “marry whom I may,” or “better, run away/ With no Police to follow.” If this poem were written by a child, it would perhaps seem insignificant. Since it was written by a 31 year old woman, though, it must say something about the way the writer felt about the condition of women in 1862.

Accompanying this sense of captivity, perhaps even surpassing it, is a deep sense of loneliness that pervades many of Dickinson’s most famous “love” poems, a loneliness and longing that makes them all the more poignant:

The Loneliness One dare not sound —
And would as soon surmise
As in its Grave go plumbing
To ascertain the size —

The Loneliness whose worst alarm
Is lest itself should see —
And perish from before itself
For just a scrutiny —

The Horror not to be surveyed —
But skirted in the Dark —
With Consciousness suspended —
And Being under Lock —

I fear me this — is Loneliness —
The Maker of the soul
Its Caverns and its Corridors
Illuminate — or seal —

This is the kind of loneliness that threatens to engulf oneself, a loneliness so pervasive that one is afraid to admit it, much less to explore its depths. Like a ghost, or “Horror,” it is best not to confront it directly because you cannot defeat it. It is so powerful that it is “The Maker of the soul,” indeed, the very essence of the narrator.

This kind of pervasive loneliness undermines our very self:

One need not be a Chamber — to be Haunted —
One need not be a House —
The Brain has Corridors — surpassing
Material Place —

Far safer, of a Midnight Meeting
External Ghost
Than its interior Confronting —
That Cooler Host.

Far safer, through an Abbey gallop,
The Stones a’chase —
Than Unarmed, one’s a’self encounter —
In lonesome Place —

Ourself behind ourself, concealed —
Should startle most —
Assassin hid in our Apartment
Be Horror’s least.

The Body — borrows a Revolver —
He bolts the Door —
O’erlooking a superior spectre —
Or More “

How ironical, in a modern sort of way, of course, that it is precisely the “self” that the poet Is confronting in her poetry. The power of the poem comes from confronting one’s self “In lonesome Place.” Who, though, should be more aware of the danger of confronting one’s true self than one who has spent her lifetime confronting her self in her poetry?

I was probably more surprised to discover how Dickinson seems to see death as an escape for life’s pain:

The Heart asks Pleasure — first —
And then — Excuse from Pain —
And then — those little Anodyness
That deaden suffering —

And then — to go to sleep —
And then — if it should be
The will of its Inquisitor
The privilege to die “

How much pain does one have to be in before one asks for “The privilege to die?” Certainly more pain than I’ve suffered so far. Before I read the Collected Poems, I would have thought that the powerful “Because I could not stop for Death” was typical of Dickinson’s attitude towards death. I was a little taken aback to discover that poems like this are just as common as poems where she willingly dies for beauty or truth and calmly accepts death as a natural part of life. On one hand, poems like this make me question her attitude towards death more than I would have done before. On the other hand, I wonder if the creative contemplation of death can somehow lead to a healthier view of life and death. No matter, seeing the more famous poems in light of these poems gives more depth to them and makes think about them more than you otherwise would have.