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11 August 2012

"Hope" is the thing with feathers—

"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.
                                                            F314 (1862)  254

Common Yellow Throat
William Wander
This is one of the most well-known poems of Emily Dickinson. The first line, with its substitution of “thing with feathers” for “bird” gives the reader an immediate discovery moment. And it seems right, too. Hope is rather like a bird “perch[ing] in the soul” and, at least for some people, who never stops. Dickinson was apparently one of those lucky souls whose hope never died—or at least it hadn’t died by 1862.  The essence of hope, as Dickinson portrays it, is that it “never stops” singing its tune, no matter how difficult the circumstances—and yet it never asks for even “a crumb” to keep going.
            This is, as are many of Dickinson’s poems, written in standard hymn form: four-line stanzas with iambic tetrameter alternating with iambic trimeter. The rhyme scheme is loosely ABAB, but Dickinson plays with it a little. The “er” sound in “feathers” does go well with the same sound in “words,” although it isn’t such a close slant rhyme as “soul” with “all” or “storm” with “warm.” The “er” sound is carried through the poem, however, adding aural unity: perches, feathers, words, never, heard, Bird, heard, never—and, related, storm and warm.


  1. Can you please explain the second stanza? Thanks. Ali

    1. Hi Ali - the first step in that stanza is to turn it into 'normal' English. Dickinson here as in most other poems simply leaves out words or changes normal order. If I work to do that I get:

      The bird sings most sweetly in a gale.
      It would have to be a very severe storm
      That could quiet the little bird
      Whose song has warmed so many people.

      Look it over and see if you agree with my interpretation.

  2. Your dedication is amazing, and i love that you answer questions so generously.

    This poem has always been a favorite. Indeed, she was lucky to believe that hope would always sing in her life—a free and generous gift!

    1. Thank you, Laura for this and other kind comments!

  3. Hi. Wonder if you’d ever consider an unpacking of what might be considered the ‘Hope Trilogy’ - this one, ‘Hope is a strange invention,’ and ‘Hope is a subtle glutton.’ Would love to hear your thoughts on…what is going on here, haha, these do not strike me as unabashedly pro Hope pieces!

    1. Sorry -- falling well behind on just going one by one through the poems. But I encourage you to take a stab at it and post it here! Sounds very interesting!

  4. Omg thank you for replying, you are a poetry-unpacking god to me. Well, short of a lengthy exegesis, the interesting thing is the 1860s usage of the word ‘hope,’ which I really think denoted ‘unseeing faith in god,’ tune without words, if you will, uninterrogatable, asking not a thing, yadda. I mean, how likely is someone literally denounced as a no hoper to write a poem that correctly interpreted results in tens of thousands of people to get bird tattoos? I think those tattoos are probably in error.

  5. As I see it, the most compelling evidence that this poem might often be misunderstood, and is possibly more skeptical irony than straightforward praise (the latter causing people to ink opon themselves the aforementioned tattoos of birds) is that "Hope" is in quotation marks - not to mention, as the comment above does: the tune being without words - when words meant so much to ED- and stood for meaning. Might this "No-Hoper" have used "Hope" to describe the practice of "the meek members of the Resurrection?"

    1. Except that Hope is warming -- its tune may have no words but it creates a positive feeling. I imagine the poetry springs from that -- the words come because the thing with feathers is so tuneful. the 'meek members' seem to have no such warmth, nor words.

  6. ex. B:
    He would declare and could himself believe
    That the birds there in all the garden round
    From having heard the daylong voice of Eve
    Had added to their own an oversound,
    Her *tone of meaning but without the words.*