“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.
This poem was written in about 1861. Only two manuscripts were written, however, and one has been lost. The surviving manuscript can be found at the Emily Dickinson Archives. What is known of the lost manuscript is that it was sent to her cousins Louise and Francis Norcross around 1862.
The poem uses a bird as a metaphor for hope. She notes that hope is a feeling that “perches” on the soul and is always there. Hope is not something that must be voiced to have meaning. Even though hope is compared to something that has feathers, Dickinson doesn’t specifically say that it’s a bird. While she uses the words “little bird” this is a reference to a storm hurting a bird. However, she does use terms such as “feathers, perches, and sings,” which suggests that Dickinson is talking about a bird. Another interesting piece of the poem comes in the last stanza where Dickinson describes hope is there even in the worst conditions. She ends the poem by stating an “it” that doesn’t ask a thing of her. She doesn’t specify what this “it” means but, in the context of the poem it could be “hope.” The poem ends by saying that the “it” doesn’t ask anything of her.
A nineteenth-century article from the Tribune mentions that compared to other poems she has written, “Hope” shows the illusory nature of the spirit. It also mentioned that the vagueness and “music that marked the first efforts” (Duchac), are reminiscent of poems written before. In another text, it references how of how to teach the poem in school as well as works that offer cementation on different techniques in the poem.
The poem is memorable because of the metaphor for “hope” being something that can fly. It relates that it’s something inside the body and takes flight when it’s recognized. It takes the feeling and idea of hope and turns it into something more tangible. Using imagery, Dickinson captures the feelings that can be hard to describe and links them to attributes that are understood. Her poem tells of how strong hope is and how hard it is to break.
Bibliography and Further Reading “‘Hope’ Is the Thing with Feathers,” The Poems of Emily Dickinson: an Annotated Guide to Commentary Published in English, 1890-1977, by Joseph Duchac (1979); “Reviews and Notices,” Emily Dickinson’s Reception in the 1890s: a Documentary History, by Willis J. Buckingham (1989);“Hope Is the Thing with Feathers.” Emily Dickinson Archive
Credits Composed by Asia Hill, Fall 2018.