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.

~Emily dickinson
Today I met a thing with feathers…….

This is one of the eternally-anthologized ones, and with good reason. Dickinson’s metaphor of hope as a small bird is perfect. It works on every level.

As I read and re-read the poem, I’m struck by the shift in tense in line 8 in the second stanza. Suddenly the verb shifts to past tense–kept–and I wonder why. Is Dickinson simply referring to the fact that hope has helped people in the past? Why not say “keeps,” though? It still works rhythmically. It still makes sense.

For the remainder of the poem, Dickinson remains in the past–she recounts how she has heard the bird, and how it has never asked anything of her. Why the switch to past tense? In a poem about hope, this feels a little ominous. It’s as if she’s suggesting that, while hope still exists, it exists for her in the past.

This switch in tense never struck me before this reading. I’d always viewed this poem as an ode to hope. In reading it more closely, I’m not so sure. It’s still about hope, and it’s still praising hope, but the tense shift seems to color the whole poem somehow. It’s as if the speaker still believes in hope in general, but isn’t finding it in this particular moment. Or maybe she’s in need of hope, and is looking back on the times when it has come to her aid in the faith that it will do so again.


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