The Thing With Feathers: Emily Dickinson on Hope

When I read Emily Dickinson's poetry I often find myself both surprised and comforted.  With her spare, incisive language, she frequently seems to hit on something that I've felt but not been able to express.  This, I suppose, is one of the things great artists are able to do: take something indistinct and make it palpable with words, or sounds, or colors.  There is a feeling of comfort in knowing that someone else has felt the same thing, and there is feeling of surprise in seeing something which seemed hazy and difficult to define suddenly become so clear.

Dickinson wrote a number of poems about hope, and they have helped me to clarify my own understanding of this feeling.  Here's one of them:

"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.

Several things struck me about this image of Hope as a bird.  First,  there is "singing the tune without the words", which, to me, implies a certain amount of courage.  To sing without knowing the words is to gleefully try something you don't yet know how to do perfectly.  Second, there is the idea that Hope doesn't ask anything of us.  Hope is as undemanding as the birds who arrive in spring; you can feed them, but they will come whether you do or not.  Finally, Hope is something that just does not stop.  It sings, and sings, and sings, and sings, no matter how harsh the storm.

Here's another poem from Dickinson on the same topic, this one written sixteen years later.

Hope is a strange invention - 
A Patent of the Heart - 
In unremitting action
Yet never wearing out -

Of this electric Adjunct 
Not anything is known 
But its unique momentum 
Embellish all we own - 

Once again Hope is unstoppable, with its "unique momentum" and "unremitting action".  It is also an "electric Adjunct", a mysterious current of energy which serves to "Embellish all we own", that is, to make our whole lives beautiful.  

Sometimes the word hope sounds wishy-washy and daydreamy, but if Dickinson is to be believed, it is actually powerful and resilient.  It may be as invisible as electricity or as small-looking as a bird caught in a storm, but that does not diminish its potency.  I am grateful for images like these, because they allow me to visualize the hope that I feel.  They also remind me that my experience is not at all unlike that of others who have also felt that same persistent, mysterious, and beautiful song of hope.