“Hope” is the thing with feathers by Emily Dickinson, from THE POEMS OF EMILY DICKINSON, edited by Thomas H. Johnson, Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Copyright © 1951, 1955, 1979, 1983 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.
What is hope? Why do we feel hope? And why is hope so important to us? In a story from Greek mythology, hope was famously the only item to remain in Pandora’s box after it released the evils of the world, demonstrating just how valuable hope is to us: had hope escaped from our possession, humanity would have been unable to survive the evils of the world.
Emily Dickinson believed in the power and value of hope just as strongly. Famously reclusive, this 19th-century American poet remained largely unpublished during her lifetime, by her own choice. After her death in 1886, however, her poems were discovered and published by her close friends and family. Since then, Dickinson has grown to become one of the most mysterious, emblematic, and loved poets of all time with her short but powerful poems. Much of her poetry is devoted to exploring the nature of life, death, and what she called the “Circumference,” the boundary where the reality that we know meets that of the sublime—God, for example, or for the less religiously inclined, Truth with a capital T. Dickinson was the first poet to really capture my attention when I was younger, and she is now one of my all-time favorite writers.
In her beautiful poem “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers,” Dickinson explores the power of hope and what it means to us as humans. In the first stanza, she introduces hope as a bird that “perches in the soul” and forever keeps us company to bear us through difficult days. In the second stanza, Dickinson emphasizes how only the most terrible situations could cause hope to falter, though hope becomes an even greater comfort to us when life is at its most difficult (a “gale” is a strong wind, while “abash” is to make someone disconcerted). Finally, in the last stanza, Dickinson brings home her message of how hope is always with us without ever costing us anything, no matter how difficult or dangerous something may be.
I love this poem first and foremost for its message, and then for its structure and wording, which is also beautiful. The poem isn’t very long, but its message is still clear and potent. The rhythm of the words flows smoothly, and the words themselves are simple. I love how Dickinson feels no need to overstretch herself with elaborate and showy writing, and instead chooses to relay her message as simply as possible, which brings me closer to the poem and only heightens the impact of her message.
Dickinson is well known for the seemingly hidden meanings and complex symbolism in her work. Though this particular poem of hers is relatively simple, I, like Dickinson and her “hidden” meanings, have a hidden reason for sharing this particular poem with you today. “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers” is, without doubt, an extraordinary, thought-provoking work that showcases poetry at its best. But that’s not the only reason I chose to review it. In a time when the world increasingly has to deal with problems both large and small, from climate change to warfare to poverty to politics, it’s more important than ever to remember the message of this poem: hope can carry us through the darkest of storms, and even when all else has abandoned us, hope never will. And I hope (yes, I hope) that you will remember it, for hope never stops—at all.