Emily Dickinson: To Hold Hope

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Conceived in the mind, hope has no concrete form or identifiable sound. Instead, hope is a vague description of moments when people survive only on their sense of optimism, continuing to strive regardless of the obstacles. Despite its indistinct shape, Emily Dickinson famously gives hope a heart, beak, and most importantly feathers. However the ambiguity of hope did not evade Dickinson’s speculative character.

She puts the word hope under quotations, emphasizing the concept’s unknown nature, yet she goes on to give hope a particular metaphor in an attempt to comprehend the attributes of hope. Emily Dickinson “was able to capture universal moments in a simple sentence, create metaphors that stand the test of time” (Spacey). Specifically, Emily Dickinson profoundly encapsulates hope, an abstract concept, as a bird, a physical and living animal, by employing the reader’s senses, describing different settings, and alluding to spiritual connotations in “Hope is Thing with Feathers.”

The bird in the poem has a distinct sense of touch and sound characterizing the physical features of hope. Emily Dickinson, despite staying close to home, was “a keen birdwatcher who was less interested in amassing a large checklist of the different species than in observing the individual birds and their contributions to the ecosystem of her garden” (Huff). She could hear birds singing out her window and saw birds take flight daily, and she comprehended a bird’s role in nature. Her understanding allowed her to compare hope to a bird and give tangible characteristics. In the first line of the poem, she write “‘hope’ is the thing with feathers” (1). Besides referring to a bird, the feathers also create a sensation of touch.

Andrew Spacey states “feathers are soft and gentle to the touch but they are also strong in flight, even on tiny birds. And feathers are made up of complex individual fibres.” Instead of Dickinson blatantly saying that hope is like a bird, she stylistically chooses to describe hope with feathers. Feathers are light but as Spacey points out “they are also strong in flight,” which perfectly encapsulates hope as something that is fragile but can also withstand powerful forces. Furthermore, feathers are intricate, and when individual ones come together, they can create a wing, which allows birds to fly. In another sense, feathers hold up birds as hope can hold up humanity. Dickinson uses feathers to give hope a formidable physical embodiment.

Moreover, Emily writes that the bird “sings the tune without words– / And never stops– at all–” (3-4). Here, the bird sings a song, giving hope a distinct sound. The bird in this poem is courageous and preserving, for never stops singing and continues to share its song even under the most difficult conditions. Mary K. Ruby addresses the metaphor of the song: “in fact, the sound of birds singing renews many people’s sense of possibility and wonder.” The sound comes most often in the morning of a new day, beginning the day with a new “sense of possibility” as Ruby states. Hope like the song is everlasting and can also can bring new potential; therefore, the song of the bird symbolizes the promise hope is. The aspects of a bird bring physical touch and sound to the poem that symbolizes some of the features hope in different ways.

In addition, Dickinson places the bird in specific, difficult situations which compares to humans fighting hard battles, but hope transcends these sufferings. In the second stanza, Dickinson says “And sweetest– in the Gale– is heard– / and sore must be the storm– / that could abash the bird the little bird” (5-7). As the stanza before already points out, hope is always singing, but it sings the sweetest when times get rough or when the “Gale” starts to approach. Mary Ruby analyzes the lines as such: “she moves outward from the enclosed space of the soul, placing the bird in the wider world, amid a raging storm. It does more than merely survive, however; its song seems to rise above the noise of the gale.”

In other words, when life is hard and difficulties are thrown at people, there is hope, singing through the chaos and mayhem. Not even a mighty storm could embarrass or disconcert this bird which protects many people from adverse situations. In fact, the bird thrives in the strongest winds. Hope is difficult to disturb, especially when life seems hard, which is also when it is most needed. Randall Huff agrees: “If a tiny bird on a wire-thin twig can withstand forces stronger than any gale on the open seas, then a human being should be able to do and survive much more.” Similarly, Dickinson goes on to say “I’ve heard it in the chillest land– / And on the strangest Sea–” (9-10).

Unlike the beginning of the poem, referring to the bird’s song in perhaps a spring day, the speaker now hears the song in cold times and strange seas. While spring connotes to joy and sunshine, cold can mean harsh and strange refers to foreboding. Hope is needed the most during difficult times; it brings optimism on a cold day or in times of fear. There is no need for light on an already sunny day, and therefore a bird’s song is the most powerful as a sense of hope “in the chillest land” and “on the strangest sea.” By placing the bird in multiple yet similar circumstances, Dickinson captures the temperament of hope as a strong and formidable bird.

Likewise, Dickinson’s personal spiritual beliefs expresses the universality of hope. Emily Dickinson struggled with her religious identity; she could not follow society’s perception of God and nature. Even though she did not express faith outwardly, she still pondered religious ideas, such as salvation and struggle in her poem. In particular, she may have been contemplating the religious connection of hope.

As Henry T. Armistead indicates, “in Christian imagery, ‘hope’ is often figured as a white dove.” This white dove is a type of bird that brings peace and light, much like how hope does in perilous times. Despite also comparing hope to a bird, she does not simply conform to the religious metaphor; instead, she expands it, influenced and motivated by her individual relationship to faith and belief. In particular, the second line “that perches in the soul–,” referring to hope, emphasizes how hope is within every soul and is not bounded by only religious ideas.

Hope is universal. This bird while battling strong winds rests inside of everyone, further establishing that hope is made by the mind but is there to guide us in difficult times. While not explicit, the strong gales, chilly lands, and strange seas connotes to suffering, which is another religious theme. While contrasting the two spiritual ideas of hope and suffering, she also accepts that the two are interdependent. As much as this poem insists that hope is a permanent part of the human condition, it also lets us know that suffering is likewise here to stay.

If hope is as powerful a force as the poem claims it is, then suffering is never really possible. Here, Dickinson’s broad view of religious ideas emphasizes hope’s purpose of guiding humanity and helping individual people.

In conclusion, Emily Dickinson gives hope physical characteristics, personality, and purpose by describing bird’s attribute, placing the bird in difficult situations, and connecting hope to her own spiritual belief. Feathers create the feeling of a strong touch while the birds song creates an everlasting sound. The surviving bird on perilous seas and chilly days prove that hope is equivalent to perseverance, and finally, by placing hope in the soul, it lives on, directing us in times of necessity. Hope has no scientific origin or qualitative data to prove its existence, but the thousands of war veterans, cancer survivors, everyday people believe in its reality.


Cite this paper

Emily Dickinson: To Hold Hope. (2021, Apr 14). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/emily-dickinson-to-hold-hope/



What did Emily Dickinson say about hope?
Emily Dickinson wrote, Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul, and sings the tune without the words, and never stops at all. She believed that hope was a powerful force that could uplift and sustain us through difficult times.
What inspired Emily Dickinson to write Hope is the thing with feathers?
There is no definitive answer to this question, as Dickinson's motivations for writing her poems are largely unknown. However, it is possible that Dickinson was inspired to write this poem by her own personal experiences with hope, or by observing the resiliency of hope in others.
What is the theme of hope by Emily Dickinson?
The theme of hope is about having faith in the future and trusting that things will work out in the end.
What metaphor is Dickinson using for hope?
A Short Biography of Emily Dickinson "Hope" is the thing with feathers (314) is one of the best known of Emily Dickinson's poems. As an extended metaphor, it likens the concept of hope to a feathered bird that is permanently perched in the soul of every human. There it sings, never stopping in its quest to inspire.
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