“Hope” is the thing with feathers

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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.


The grammatically unconventional Emily Dickinson gives us an extended metaphor explaining the nature of hope in this short poem.

In the first stanza, she places extra emphasis on her subject matter, “Hope” using quotation marks. She describes it as a thing with feathers, that perches, and sings without words. Though she never uses the word overtly within the first stanza, “Hope” is clearly represented by a bird. Take extra note in this stanza (and following) of her use of grammar. Her hyphen breaks are strategic and designed to provide extra emphasis on specific words. They also create unusual pacing and pausing. That comes through most when she uses double hyphenation around the words “at all” in the fourth line. Her capitalization choices are intended to give depth of meaning to certain words.

In the second stanza, note where she places emphasis. We get a double dash break around “in the Gale” and she also capitalizes Gale to give is extra significance. Remembering the first stanza, then, this second stanza tells us that while hope never stops singing, it sings sweetest and best in the midst of the worst storms. Take note that she does not use the word bird until the 7th line and she capitalizes the word when she does.

In the third stanza, the Speaker uses “I” for the first time – giving a personal connection and testimony to the deeds of Hope/Bird. Hope gives much but asks nothing in return. Its capacity for giving is boundless. Its reach on the earth is limitless. And for those of you paying attention to grammar choices, she finally uses a comma here in the third stanza after Extremity.

Looking back through the poem, she uses a total of fifteen dashes. Fifteen! She also uses a double-dash for emphasis three times around “at all,” “in the Gale,” and “never.”

I’ve always found Dickinson to be a strange figure in the world of literature. Her writing style – particularly her grammar choices – is a bit unusual. She was famously reclusive during her life and considered an eccentric by those who knew her. Unlike the vast majority of the world’s best known poets, her fame was posthumous. One wonders what she would make of the notoriety.

I have a self-centered soft spot for recluses who overuse hyphens in their writing.

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