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26 October 2012

A Bird came down the Walk—


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.

                                                F359 (1862)  328

The whole poem is a delight. Dickinson dons her mantle of Nature Poet as she observes the daily transactions of creatures around her. She starts by watching a bird doing its thing, unaware that the poet is watching. It comes strutting or hopping down a path or walk, spies a worm and eats it up. Then, as if to clear its palate, it leans over a “convenient Grass” to take a drink of dew. One can almost hear him burp. A beetle comes along and the contented bird hops obligingly against the wall to let it pass.
            But it senses something isn’t right. His eyes, “like frightened Beads,” look around as if in fright. “He stirred his Velvet Head,” sensing he was “in danger.” The bird sounds like a robin to me, with its soft black head. Certainly their eyes are like black beads and they are masters of finding and devouring worms.
            The watching poet then offers him a bit of bread but this is too much. The bird flies away. Except that this isn’t the end of the poem as Dickinson sees it. In one of those reversals of sky and sea (for example, “This—is the land—the sunset washes” – F297), the bird “unrolled his feathers” as if he were changing from an earthbound thing to a heavenly creature, and then “rowed” himself more softly “Home” than the act of rowing on the ocean. The oars’ action, like the bird’s wing, are so small and “silver” in the expanse of water and sky, that they don’t even leave a “seam” behind to show they once moved through that space.
            In a final exquisitely lovely image, she likens the smoothness of bird flight to that of butterflies who, once their wings have dried after emerging from the cocoon, “Leap” off the “Banks of Noon” as if now day has become a river flowing past living things. The butterflies, unlike the bird who flies upward, leap into the river of life, “plashless as they swim.”
            Perhaps there is a bit of envy there as the poet contemplates the bird and the butterflies in their seamless escape into the air. She was an earthbound creature although in poems like these it is clear her soul belonged to other dimensions as well.
           

2 comments:

  1. I love a few thins about this poem in particular: the play of the a's in Angle and halves; the reflection of glass in Grass; and the poet's own feeling of caution on the approach of the Bird, as of someone encountering a great mystery. She is no different here than the worm, eaten, and the beetle, spared.

    The final beautiful image reminds me of thought itself and what kind of plash-less wake it leaves in the sky of the mind.

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  2. I believe ED writes here as much about herself - her previous self, before 'she got her eye put out' (F336) - as about the bird. Like F336, this poem is for me about a change of vision: from 'anthropomorphic', domesticating (the bird as a welcome guest) to a more distanced one, based on reflection/recollection rather than attempted participation.

    I'd even risk saying that ED mocks her previous self who imposed human terms on Nature - which transcends any such attempts. The sequence describing her involvement: 'I saw / I thought / I offered him a crumb' reveals the 'I's' continuous misinterpretation of the bird (first as a 'civil' guest, than a terrified 'cuddly thing', and finally a stereotypical lesser creature that should be satisfied with a crumb). The bird's majestic unconcern - ' And he unrolled his feathers /And rowed him ... Home— ' is Nature's (and ED's) comment on such human efforts.

    The change of vision is revealed with the word 'softer' (which introduces the breathtaking comparisons in the last stanza). Anyone startled by an escaping thrush knows that the take-off is anything but 'soft'. Clearly, the narrator no longer participates in the scene but recollects it 'with the mind's eye'.

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