“Hope” is the thing with feathers

We don’t usually associate Emily Dickinson with metapoetry or with the widespread sampling and recontextualizing such as found in T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.”  But this poem from Dickinson, one of her best-known, could be engaging in something we could call that.

The poem starts off with a clear indication of reference, by putting its first word in quotes. Based on Emily’s unusual but internally consistent style, I don’t believe that she’s using quotes to indicate hope as concept, as an ideal (she capitalized words to indicate that sort of thing). If it’s a quote, she’s referencing someone else. Who said this “Hope?”

My chief candidate would be the poet and poem from our last post, Emily Bronte and Bronte’s poem “Hope.”  If you read and listened to “Hope”  in our last post you’ll know that “Hope”  isn’t a hopeful poem at all. Dickinson’s poem, on the other hand, is often viewed as praising hope, but if you read/listen to them together, Bronte’s poem sheds a different light on the much better-known “thing with feathers” poem.*

Dickinson seems to start where Bronte ended. Bronte’s hope has feathered wings, and it uses them to soar to heaven to never return. Dickinson starts with “hope” only specifically given the potential for flying away, but Dickinson has “hope” sticking around. Some read the feathered aspect of Dickinson’s image as cute, like a pet songbird, a friendly image, but I don’t think Dickinson does cute much, and I’m not sure she’s doing it here.

Punk Monk Emily

My wife sent me this and I believe the illustration is by Wendy MacNaughton.

 

What Dickinson says about hope in the rest of the poem has been read as outright praise, but if we take that fly-away-and-feathers link between Bronte and Dickinson, we should be alerted that there may be more shading the situation.

Hope and Hope is a thing with feathers

For those who’d like to read along, here’s today’s text and the Bronte poem it may be referencing

 

Dickinson’s hope sings without words, which is a statement of great ambiguity from a poet. Abstract sound that goes beyond meaning is part of poetry’s power, yes, but “without words” may also say that, for good or ill, hope is generalized and not realized by the specifics of the situation. A song without words could be like advice that things will always get better, always turn out fine. A friend or advisor that always tells you that; whose non-specific hope is constant and never relenting can be a “not today please!” thing after all.

The second stanza is an extended metaphor of the hope-birds sweet song in a storm. “Plucky little bird! Good for it!” Is one reading. But there’s an odd line in there that must be weighed too. If the storm is bad enough the bird might be abashed, embarrassed, Dickinson says. Why would that be? Is the hope-bird, shy, timid? Bronte’s hope is said to be in her poem’s first line, and that turns out to be a very severe flaw as Bronte develops it. Could it be even darker? Did the hope-bird say listen to my hope-song in the storm and not fear—oh, how embarrassing—category 5, your town is wiped out by the tornado or hurricane?

Am I being Debbie-downer here? Could be. But how else does one explain the “abash” in that line?**

The last stanza begins still carrying over that metaphor: hey New Englanders (and Minnesotans!) if it’s cold, the frozen center of winter, you can still hear the magical hope-bird. Out way beyond land on the strangest sea? You can hear it. The hope-bird is operational in any and all conditions!

More won’t-shut-up testimony about the hope-bird there. Is this fulsome praise? Recall Dickinson’s famous definition of poetry: “If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can warm me I know that is poetry.” And in Wild Nights Wild Nights  she speaks about adventuring on chartless wild oceans. Not to paint Dickinson as an inner stone-cold Goth here, but cold and strange are not what she seeks to avoid. Dickinson says the hope-bird keeps “so many warm.” She doesn’t say everybody or herself.

What do I make of Dickinson’s concluding couplet? Many readings see it as a comment that hope isn’t self-serving, the crumb being reward for a pet or a tamed or otherwise human-habituated bird. Dickinson (unlike Bronte, whose hope is portrayed as fickle and even cruel) has just made much of hope’s seeming ubiquity. If we take it that she’s commenting ambiguously on someone else’s hope or Bronte’s portrayal of a fickle hope, she could have undercurrents in those last two lines. She may be saying “My hope is wild and unpredictable, maybe not as specifically feral and cruel as Bronte’s, but my hope is not my pet, not at my beck and call.”

Of course, a great deal of this reading depends on thinking that when Dickinson put hope in quotes she meant to refer to the title of Bronte’s poem whose protagonist is highly skeptical about hope. There’s another thing she might be quoting, a special use of the word. When Dickinson entered Mount Holyoke the students there were highly encouraged to make a sincere profession of religious faith. At the end of her single year there, Emily Dickinson was still in a small group that refused to make that profession. The school had a classification for those hard-cases. They were put down as “Without hope.”

Here’s my performance of Dickinson’s “Hope’ is a thing with feathers.”  Use the player below to hear it.

 

 

 

 

*Somewhere in my reading this spring someone tipped me off to consider Bronte’s “Hope”  as an influence on this poem of Dickinson’s. I did, and this is what I found following that tip. However, I can’t find any note I made about where I first read that there might be a connection. I owe someone.

**I’m truly hesitant in this regard. I do believe in the intractable nature of the human condition, and I think Dickinson does too, but I don’t want to discount hope or “the peace that passeth all understanding” as a necessary part of dealing with those things.

A Winter’s Tale

When I first conceived of the Parlando Project several years ago I did not plan to analyze the poems I presented. My original vision was to present the combinations of music and words directly, unmediated.

I had several reasons, including that I didn’t think I was particularly good at that, but the chief reason was that I was worried that was too easily associated with the idea that poetry was some kind of tricky riddle meant to lock out it’s meaning from the unworthy, rather than a different way to approach how things are.

For every person who is satisfied by “solving” a poem, there are twenty-times more that find the effort not worth their time or attention, and a not unsubstantial number that have been found-out for bad readings, wrong guesses, and are shamed from ever making another attempt with poetry. Or for safety and comfort,  some readers will restrict themselves only to poetry that seems to reveal itself at first sight.

The experience of poetry as rote code-breaking or writing of it like a video game cheat solution, even if you find that sort of thing engaging and fun, reduces it. Constraining your poetry experience to easily-grasp aphorisms and reassuring sentiments also limits it.

Once in operation the Parlando Project didn’t follow my plan. If you’ve been reading the more than 300 posts here accompanying the audio presentations of poetry, you’ll have seen that most of the time I present some kind of explanation of what I think the poem means. How’d that happen? Mostly because I ask questions as I experience the poems, and then I think “Why not try to find an answer?” Those answers often delight me, and I can’t help but share them.

And maybe that’s just as well. Get the puzzle part, the explain part, out of the way and we can get on with the enjoyment of the word-music, the music-music, and the innumerable costumes, persons, and ways of speaking by which the poems come walking up to us.

Why introduce today’s piece, D. H. Lawrence’s “A Winter’s Tale”  like this? Because I can’t tell you what this poem of his means to me, at least not yet. For a moment I stopped myself and asked how I could perform or present this without knowing that.

If you’d like to see the whole text of the poem, you can view it here.

Lawrence, better known as a novelist, was also a poet published in the early Imagist anthologies, and this poem fits well into that new Imagist idea of how poetry should present things. Minnesota is covered by a couple of feet of snow at this point in our particular winter this February. The winter landscape Lawrence presents is vivid and rhymes with my experience.

English planter in early spring

Early spring in England, daffodils in the grass, flowers in planters…and then snow.

 

It’s the other character besides the poet/speaker/singer and the landscape that puzzles me. It’s only a pronoun, “she.” And what do we know of “she?” Female. Walks out in the deep snow, no mention that there is any accompanying her. “She’s waiting.” For what? We aren’t told directly, though the lovely line that describes her waiting “Impatient and cold, half sobs struggling into her frosty sigh” is both vivid and mysterious. England isn’t as cold in winter as Minnesota, but no sane and competent person goes standing out in the rural snow alone without some good reason. Well except for hunters, and my sane statement still stands. I did give some thought about the poem being a hunting story, but I can’t think of any English game that would be large enough to sob and sigh.

The last stanza only compounds the mystery for me. She’s “come so promptly.” Huh? Sounds like there’s more than a common-sense supposition that there must be a reason for her to be there. The poet/speaker/singer steps to her, and the poem concludes before it tells us, saying only the question “Why does she come, when she knows what I have to tell?”

I read one attempt to explicate this as the story of a woman who has come to meet her lover who is about to break up with her, keying partly off the line that says she’s come promptly though she knows that “she’s only nearer to the inevitable farewell.” I don’t have anything better myself, but I’m not buying that. Another says she’s death. I could go part-way for that, although then what’s she/death doing knowing about and being constrained by farewell? Death breaks up with us, we don’t break up with death!

Could she be winter? The poem’s opening says winter has just arrived or returned overnight, so there’s a link to the “promptly” remark. That gorgeous sobs and sighs line could be winter winds. If this is so, then what the poet/speaker/singer has to tell winter is that they know spring will inevitably come.

And so my appreciation for the mystery continues, it isn’t solved now, and it was far from solved when I performed this earlier this week, singing only the question, and thinking of Mark Hollis. It was intriguing to forget certainty as I sang lines of uncertain meaning, but I could grab onto their beauty and find emotional hooks in threads even if I couldn’t view the tapestry. My earlier experiences of this poem, particularly when heard aloud and formed in my voice, are no lesser than my experiences after questions and possible answers.

It’s my hope, as it has been since I started this Project, that you can do the same, and listen to the audio pieces (perhaps several times if you are intrigued) and let meaning and the emotions that surround it accrue in its own time, for your own self. The player gadget for D. H. Lawrence’s “A Winter’s Tale”  is below, and thanks for listening, it means so much to me.