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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.


  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.

  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'.

  3. Reading this again today, I am now sensing that, despite our temptation to see Emily in the poem's narrator, it may instead (or also) be the bird. There is a bruteness to the opening stanzas, as if the bird found itself the heir of some gruesome lot, devouring raw worms for food and scavenging dewdrops for hydration. The beetle, symbolizing death, is to be roundly avoided, reminding me of "We do not play on Graves" where death is kept "as far as enemies" apart. It also reminds me of an 1872 letter she wrote to Higginson which opens "To live is so startling it leaves but little time for other occupations," where here she offers us the portrait of a perpetually startled creature! Then, in a reversal of roles "she" the narrator innocently offers a "crumb," which the bird (also her, as artist) similarly avoids with alarm, eschewing any interaction, no matter how filial, with this other creature. The metaphors of the silver sea and butterfly's flight are then easily analogies for the work of the poet, carrying them into realms not open to the land creature and its crumb. Regardless of correctness, it is remarkable that she has captured the perspectives of both narrator and subject simultaneously, illustrating this near approach of creatures between two parallel realms with such curious and precise detail.

  4. What rapid changes ED‘s view of life traversed in such a short time, F336 – F359.

    F336: Before she got her eye put out, she saw as other creatures, no other way. Since she lost that way of seeing, she watches through safer windowpanes of her soul. Were she told she could own the entire physical world, the overload would strike her dead. Rather than looking at life as other creatures, incautious of blinding noonday sun, she now sees with spiritual eyes.

    F343: She stands on top of things, like a tree, abandons all Christian beliefs that flaw her soul, and welcomes flashing lightning. An unbeliever, she bares her dauntless head to the Sun, which believers dare not do at noon, protected by her deeds, not by baseless myths of salvation.

    F358: She takes no less than firmaments in her basket, for Earths are common as berries in her native town.

    F359: She carefully watches a bird coming down the walk, devour a worm, and politely stand aside for a beetle.

    From fearful of the noonday sun to baring her dauntless head to the Sun, from hiding behind window panes to taking no less than firmaments in her basket, from ignoring common Earths to observing minute details of bird behavior, she escapes from fear and embraces Life.

    What changed for ED?

  5. Helen Vendler’s comment on this poem is a thing of beauty, literally poetry in prose. Here’s her last paragraph:

    “It may be, however, that the best sortie of the imagination here occurs in the "rapid .. . frightened Beads;' the bird's eyes, and they are not "beautiful" in any ordinary sense of the word. Yet in their rapid, acid pain, in the poet's vivid observation, the "frightened Beads" have the rarer "beauty" of exquisite accuracy. Dickinson puts all her charm to work at the end of the poem, stifling both savagery and fear in the opulence of her "oh" sounds, accompanied by alliterating phrases: "rolled . . . rowed .. . Home ... Oars . . . Ocean;' followed by her light "silver .. . seam" and her buoyant "Butterflies, off Banks of Noon." In the synthesizing Dickinsonian imagination, the ocean's fish, which swim with splashing sounds, are by the one word "plashless;' metamorphosed into a swarm of silently moving butterflies.”

    2010, ‘Dickinson’, pp. 157-160