“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.
People who know me well are aware that I have a ridiculous fear of birds. It originated with a family trip to an amusement park/water park that had a live animal show featuring a bird handler. He picked somebody out of the audience to help — 8-year-old me with my very long, straight hair. I was excited, because I loved birds. He had me hold out my arm straight to the sides. He stood a colorful parrot on each of my arms and then put a giant one on my head. It was a lot of fun … until it wasn’t. Because when he went to remove the parrot on my head its feet got tangled in my hair. Major bird squawking ensued, and big wing flapping. And I was terrified. The squawking and the flapping was horrifically loud. The bird feet were scraping my head and pulling my hair. Hello, life-long fear of birds.
But I still think they are wonderous and fascinating. And even the drabbest of sparrows is beautiful in its plain way. The abstract concept of Hope is appealing that is not always based in the rational, or in the evidence. Hope does not communicate by ‘speaking’ to us in conventional ways. It is a visceral feeling that we get inside. It raises our spirits and cheers us up even in the darkest times of our lives. It gives us strength to persevere, to not give up. As Dickinson wrote in this poem, Hope is sweetest of all when the ‘Gale’ is raging.
We are all navigating turbulent, uncertain times, as a pandemic stretches around the world. Hope is there for us. Hope can withstand almost anything. In the poet’s words, even in ‘the chillest land’ or ‘on the strangest Sea’, Hope remains. It never asks for anything from us in return. We just have to remember to find it and share it, and let it move us forward.
About Emily Dickinson
Emily Dickinson was born on December 10, 1830, in Amherst, Massachusetts. She attended Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in South Hadley, for one year. Her father, Edward Dickinson, was actively involved in state and national politics, and served a term in Congress. She had close relationships with her younger sister, Lavinia, her brother, Austin, and his wife, Susan.
Dickinson’s poetry was strongly influenced by the Metaphysical poets of seventeenth-century England, and her upbringing in a Puritan New England town, which stressed a conservative approach to Christianity.
Dickinson was known to admire the poetry of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and John Keats. She was a prolific poet. It is documented that she regularly sent poems in letters to friends. Yet, she was not publicly recognized for her poetry during her lifetime. After she died, Dickinson’s family discovered forty hand-bound volumes of almost 1,800 poems. Dickinson assembled these booklets by folding and sewing sheets of stationery paper together and copying final versions of poems onto them. The first volume of her work was published posthumously in 1890, 4 years after her death. The last volume of her work was published in 1955.