The other evening, the 10th grader announced she had an English assignment on the symbolism in an Emily Dickinson poem. Which one, the husband and I asked.
“Hope is the thing with feathers,” she said. This is the first line of the poem, since Emily Dickinson’s poems are numbered, not titled. And what a first line.
As we were in high spirits and on our way out to dinner, I felt it incumbent on me to reply that at this moment, a moment in which I was driving because the husband was on call, a moment of darkness and chill, a November moment, “Hope” was the thing in faux shearling.
I am allowed to make fun of my own name.
Others, famous others, have done so. Alexander Pope, author of "The Rape of the Lock", an 18th Century English satire of courting and romance, if memory serves, wrote, “Hope springs eternal in the human breast.” This sounds promising and optimistic; unfortunately, as an English major I know the second line of this couplet: “Man never is, but always to be blest.” That is, blessed. That is, hope is a state of frustration.
I feel sure I’ve written about this before. The Latin root of hope means to expect or wait. To expect is to anticipate. Perhaps anticipation is a pleasant state, but it is a state of unfulfillment, and the sense of Pope’s lines, and the etymology of the word, back that up. Is there anything sadder than unfulfilled optimism? Is there anything sadder than always expecting a good result but never achieving it?
Of course there is. Crushed optimism. Crushed optimism and never even anticipating good is worse.
So this is why, perhaps, Mrs. Bombadoodle chose this Emily Dickinson poem, poem number 314, according to the American Poetry Foundation, but also called poem number 254 by the Poetry Foundation. I’m sure there’s a story there, but I do not know it. I have two volumes of ED’s poems in the basement that I can search out. My point lies elsewhere.
My point is that we need the unironic view of hope that Dickinson offers in her poem. Right now we need it. It’s the dark time of the year. It’s a dark time for our country. We are heading into Thanksgiving, though, a generally excellent holiday (setting aside the whole Pilgrim and Native American genocide thing and thinking about the inclusive and grateful iteration of the meaning of the holiday). We need to let our feathered things sing. If Emily Dickinson is to be trusted, our feathered things are singing, even in the storm, regardless of our intent. The undaunted “little Bird” will weather the storm. All it asks is nothing. It just keeps singing. We are wired to hope, and it must be for a reason. I trust it will carry us through, proving just enough fuel to keep us working towards a better, more equitable country. In fact, according to the dictionary, an archaic meaning of the word is trust. She’s singing now. I hear her.
“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.
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