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13 August 2013

Most she touched me by her muteness —

Black-capped chicadee:
Massachusetts state bird
Most she touched me by her muteness —
Most she won me by the way
She presented her small figure —
Plea itself — for Charity —

Were a Crumb my whole possession —
Were there famine in the land —
Were it my resource from starving —
Could I such a plea withstand —

Not upon her knee to thank me
Sank this Beggar from the Sky —
But the Crumb partook — departed —
And returned On High —

I supposed — when sudden
Such a Praise began
'Twas as Space sat singing
To herself — and men —

'Twas the Winged Beggar —
Afterward I learned
To her Benefactor
Making Gratitude

                                                                   F483 (1862)  J760

If Dickinson wrote a bird poem that was not sweet, I don't know of it. In this one the poet has granted a little feathered "Beggar" a small crumb. I picture a little house wren or chickadee hopping up boldly – as I have no doubt that Dickinson regularly scattered crumbs for the birds that frequented her garden. This particular bird "presented her small figure" as if pleading for a crumb. After she received it she seemingly flew away. That would have been the end of the story except that the poet was then surprised by a flow of song so delightful and unearthly that it sounded to her as if Space was singing to herself.
    She later learns that it was the bird singing to her in gratitude. Awwwwww.

Dickinson adds a bit of interest to this poem by hiding the identity of the beggar until the middle of the poem. Until then the reader may well be picturing a woman, hungry and poor, begging for a bit of charity. The first half is written in iambic tetrameter and features quite a bit of repetition for rhetorical effect. The second half, birdlike, is shorter and quicker: iambic trimeter with lots of run-on lines (enjambment) to keep it moving.

The poem is consistent with earlier Dickinson works about the church of nature where the little birds are choristers. In this one, she herself plays the Goddess.


  1. What strikes me most about this poem is the contrast of muteness with the sudden heavenly outburst of song. The poet's first reaction to the bird is to its silence, as if the silence were a metaphor or symbol of the bird's poverty. The silence inspires a gift. The bird disappears. And then suddenly, unexpectedly, a song as if "Space sat singing".

    So, in this poem, I think there is more than is on the surface. For me, it recalls the fairy tales where a king comes dressed in a beggar's rags and the hero is rewarded for his generosity after he has given without condition or expectation of reward. If you are more inspired by Christian stories, it might recall Christ (my paraphrase) saying -- as you do for the least of these, so you do for me.

    1. I was, in fact, thinking of that saying of Christ and also of the thought that there are angels among us hidden as beggars or other cast-offs. I don't know why I left off that train of thought ... but now that you've reminded me of it, I agree that this is the more important idea: a gift freely given and an unexpected blessing in return. I love the alliteration (as well as the image) of "Space sat singing."
      Thanks for your thoughtful comment.

  2. Reading John Cody's book After Great Pain, in its shadow I see ED as the bird pleading for a crumb that ED's mother feeds her. ED flies away, letting herself sing in gratitude. The sad irony: starved by her mother's affections, ED could feed the world her song.

    1. I hadn't heard of this book -- do you recommend it?

  3. Cody was a psychoanalyst, who uses Freudian ideas to shine a light on ED's relationship with her mother. He examines images from her poems that express her emotional starvation and longing for love. Cody writes well, but the caveat I bring to his argument, being a psychiatrist myself---not Freudian---is defining a person by psychopathology, as opposed, for example, by genius, though these can be very much the same, and In ED's case, seem to be.

  4. So, yes, I do recommend it.

  5. What good fortune, pleasure, honor, & stimulus to participate in this blog, such a bright spot to anticipate each day. Is there a Nobel Prize in blogs? I nominate Susan Kornfeld!

    “But the Crumb partook — departed —
    And returned On High —”

    As a backyard birder, there’s one clue in the poem that strongly suggests the bird is a chickadee, not a wren or other species. Unlike many birds that gorge themselves at the bird feeder and then fly away, chickadees almost always come to the feeder, take one seed, fly away to eat it in a safer place, and repeat until they’re full. No other species does this so predictably.

    PS. Chickadees are anything but mute if they decide you’re obnoxious. They scream “chick-a-dee, dee, dee, dee, etc. until the cows come home.