I came across this poem by Emily Dickinson this evening and was immediately struck with the beauty of describing hope as “the thing with feathers-/that perches in the soul-.” This uses the literary device of zoomorphism (which is defined as assigning animal-like qualities to non-animal subjects for added effect). The image of a bird as hope is lovely indeed, but by having this little feathered “thing” perching on the SOUL, well, now we’ve moved to a much deeper level, haven’t we?
Now we’re not just talking about a sweet image of hope but rather some “thing with feathers” that perches in that indefinable part of us that connects us with the eternal. I think the word perches is important because birds that perch can also fly away. But Dickinson adds the line, “”And sings the tune without the words -/and never stops at all -” which suggests that hope is loyal and will not abandon us.
Dickinson goes further by adding the image of the little feathered thing weathering a terrible storm. The storm, of course, represents the challenges we experience in life that require hope to get us through. And to describe that little Bird as something that has kept us warm – brought us comfort – adds even more poignancy. The idea that hope now has warmth assigned as one of its qualities gives me a warm feeling just thinking about it.
For Dickinson to end the poem with those final two lines, “Yet – never – in Extremity/, It asked a crumb – of me,” demonstrates that hope is something that demands nothing in return. Like a bird requiring no crumb of reward, it is there “perching” and can bring us comfort when nothing else can. If there is a requirement for “the thing with feathers,” then perhaps it is the willingness to push back cynicism and embrace that little Bird with its warmth and accompanying solace. After all, what is purer than hope?
I also found a beautiful musical arrangement that uses Dickinson’s poem as the lyrics. It is well worth your time to listen.
“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.