Text of the Poem

HOPE.

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.

Footnotes

  1. This is an interesting metaphor. “Crumb” is an often-used metaphor that denotes a small amount, a meaning which applies in this case. The literal meaning of the word also plays a role here, in that a bird might realistically want a crumb. This is an example of giving new life to overused metaphors and phrases.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  2. Dickinson’s speaker depicts hope as a “thing with feathers,” which many of us will assume to be a bird. This “bird-as-hope” metaphor has been a part of the Western canon and Judeo-Christian tradition for millennia since the biblical story of Noah’s ark, in which a dove returns to the vessel with a message of hope: land had been found.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  3. The scale of the poem is at once intimate and very broad, expressing the theme of hope as both personal and universal. In the first stanza, the description of hope as a single bird “that perches in the soul” creates a focused, intimate view. In the second stanza, it becomes clear that hope is actually widespread, having “kept so many warm.” In the final stanza, the speaker returns to a personal reflection: “it [never] asked a crumb of me.” The poem is effective in its attention to how hope is a universal phenomenon and yet experienced on a personal level.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  4. The noun “hope” serves as a combination of “desire” and “expectation.” It captures those feelings that we do more than dream of: we want to believe that they will happen. Hope, then, is far less abstract; it represents an actual desire to better one’s self, position, relationships, or environment.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  5. Dickinson makes subtle use of alliteration in both this line and the next. Here, the first and third beats of the line are marked by words beginning with s. In the next line, the second and fourth beats are marked by b. This type of carefully-metered alliteration creates a lot of emphasis, ideal for descriptions of wild storms.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  6. This poem displays some of the different forms of slant rhyme Dickinson made use of in her poetry. A slant rhyme is a rhyme between words with similar, but not identical, sounds. For example “soul” and “all” share l sounds but have slightly different vowel sounds, making the two words a slant rhyme. In this stanza, “feathers” and “words” rhyme in an unusual way as well. The second syllable of “feathers” is quite similar to “words.” That second syllable, however is unstressed while “words” is stressed, muting the rhyme.

    — Zachary, Owl Eyes Staff
  7. When a noun is first introduced, English speakers often use the indefinite article, “a” or “an,” before the noun. This signals that it is one of many and allows the speaker to define it momentarily. Dickinson’s speaker instead uses the definite article, “the,” here to clearly state that hope is the only thing that can perform these functions. This not only strengthens the speaker’s claim, but it also sharpens the focus of the work.

    — Wesley, Owl Eyes Editor
  8. The noun “extremity” means the limit or terminal point, indicating in this case a condition of extreme urgency or need. It refers back to the superlative descriptions of “sea” and “land” and suggests that even in the worst of conditions the bird does not ask anything of the speaker. It is the perfect companion for hardship.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  9. “Chillest” and “strangest” are superlatives. Superlatives are words used to note the highest quality or degree of something. In using these hyperbolic words, the speaker suggests that the little bird and the hope it brings survives through the worst conditions.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  10. The verb “abash” means to cause someone to lose self-possession or confidence as a result of shame or humiliation. The speaker acknowledges the possibility that a storm could cause the little bird to lose itself and stop singing. Notice however that the speaker characterizes the storm that could do this as “sore,” extremely severe, harsh, or serious, and qualifies this ability with the conditional “could.” This indicates that even if there were such a storm that could “abash” the little bird, it is rare.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  11. A “gale” is a strong wind and is generally used to refer to storms that occur out on the ocean. Metaphorically, this gale represents a dark, challenging, or terrifying moment in someone’s life. The speaker recognizes that the little bird’s song of hope is most comforting during these times of peril, even though it sings all the time.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff
  12. The speaker characterizes the tune as “without words” to show that this song is a non-linguistic, non-rational, instinctive tune. Metaphorically, this signifies that hope exists outside of what is rational or what can be put into words; it comes instead from within.

    — Caitlin, Owl Eyes Staff