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Gladys Cardiff

On Hardy's "The Darkling Thrush"

Thomas Hardy felt compelled to revolt against a degenerate Victorian hyperaesthesia in
which exact articulations, the utterances of meaning and ideas were sacrificed to the
melody. What I wish to explore is Hardy's modes of corrective style-- that is, diction,
syntax, voice, his use of images and figurative language. It is the premise of this
discussion that analying elements of poetic style in poems that are generally accepted
as representative is one method of exploring the poet's ideas and !eliefs. How someone
ta"es or perceives the world is revealed in the way they spea" Whether springing from a
spontaneous effusion or produced through the fullest exercising of word craft, a poet's
attutudes toward what poetry can and should !e attempting to communicate are
exhi!ited in style. In other words, style is meaningful and how a poem is said is as
revealing as what is !eing said. I have selected Hardy's #The $ar"ling Thrush# as a
representative poem for this discussion.
Hardy in his prolific output of over nine hundred poems, which he descri!es in
his #%pology# as #miscellanies of verse# in #!oo"s of various character#,
reveals a cast of mind a!le to accept human experience as a provisional reality
of chance and change. % poet's #whole-seeing# can, pro!a!ly must, occur
without an integrating system of !elief &Hardy, ''(). Hardy's
auto!iography, The Life of Thomas Hardy, written in the third person, exhi!its
his personal #reticence# as Tom *aulin notes. %lthough I find the creation of a
seemingly detached !iographer !y the su!+ect himself as an am!iguous
procedure !ecause it creates a persona whether it wants to or not, I !elieve
Hardy's motive was to show a reluctance toward asserting convictions and to
resist mythologiing the poetic vocation. In Life, Hardy states that #the
mission of poetry is to record impressions, not convictions#. He delivers a
telling description of how his philosophy translates into a theory of poetry,
#-nad+usted impressions have their value, and the road to a true philosophy of
life seems to lie in hum!ly recording diverse readings of its phenomena as
they are forced upon us !y chance and change# &*aulin, ./).
#The $ar"ling Thrush# is a poem occasioned !y the !eginning of a new year
and a new century. It is formally precise, comprised of four octaves with each
stana containing two 0uatrains in hymn measure. The movement of the first
two stanas is from o!servation of a winter landscape as perceived !y an
individual spea"er to a terri!le vision of the death of an era that the landscape
seems to disclose. The action is in how the apprehension of this particular
moment of seeing changes as the emotional impact of the scene solidifies.
I leant upon a coppice gate
When 1rost was spectre-gray,
%nd Winter's dregs made desolate
The wea"ening eye of day.
The diction is simple and direct, and the tone is the 0uiet voice of private
conversation. The spectral 0uality of frost is accurate and unforced suggesting
a hoary coating, age, and the ghostly 0uality literal in its 2atin root
#spectrum#, which means appearance or image. The landscape is an
#appearance# we are seeing through the eyes of a su!+ective perceiver. The
phenomena of frost are precisely represented !ut it also coincides with the
psychological state of the spea"er which !ecomes evident as the poem
develops. Whether he was leaning on the gate at the edge of a wooded grove
in casual o!servation or from fatigue, a sense of oppressiveness is underscored
!y consonance. The sluggish weight of #Winter's dregs# pic"s up and
compounds the effect of #spectre-gray# which, in turn, leads into an effect of
exhalation in #desolate.# The word #dregs# with its strong stress and
com!ination of a hard consonant with a si!iliant in #gs# forces a caesura, and
then desolate trails off from its strong stress. #$3 solate# when spo"en as
normal speech lengthens its duration in a falling cadence in comparison to
#45*pice 6%T3# even though it maintains regularity metrically. %lthough the
line is en+am!ed, the tongue re0uires a little ad+usting, and another slowing
down occurs with #The#, and #wea"ening# inserts an extra unstressed sylla!le,
&iam!, anapest , iam!), to the full stop of #day#.
The figure of the sun as a #wea"ening eye# is a personification, a trope
resonating off 7omantic associations such as Wordsworth's #eye of heaven#
for the sun in #7esolution and Independence#. It esta!lishes the poem's time as
at the closing of a particular day at the end of a seasonal year. Whether the
7omantic allusion to visionary powers and their e!!ing is noted or not, it is a
suggestive ad+ective for a time when seeing is !ecoming more difficult due to
a reduction of light. %s the poem moves further away from visual o!servation
to emotional coloration, it replaces concrete detail with pathetic fallacy, a
rhetorical device !y which we, in 8antayana's words #dye the world our own
color# &8antayana, 9'().
The tangled !ine-stems scored the s"y
2i"e strings of !ro"en lyres . . .
The next two lines also have a 7omantic lin" to 4oleridge's aeolian harp and
the music it made at another dus" when it exemplified -nity, #one 2ife within
us and a!road: Which meets all motion and !ecomes its soul#. % #wild harp# is
also the image opening 4oleridge's own #5de to the $eparting ;ear#, a poem
in which the harp is una!le to evo"e a lasting hope &4oleridge, '/). <ow , at
the turn of the nineteenth century in Hardy's poem, the lyric instrument is
!ro"en. It is important to note that the image springs from a concrete detail.
The stems of a clim!ing vine, such as wood!ine or hops, that could !e found
on a gate and neigh!oring trees, are part of the actual country scene. Vines,
denuded and tangled in wintertime, do loo" li"e a mess of sprung strings. The
vines ela!orate su!tly on the idea of dregs, !oth as the residuals of summer
fertility and harvest, and the idea of lees, the !ase remainder of wine. The ver!
#scored# has several meanings, the idea of tallying up or recording costs or
grudges or num!ers in a competition as in time's losses and gains reduced to
dead stems= the act of notching the s"y which is visually accurate if one is
loo"ing up through vines and carries a hint of incisions that are painful, and
the idea of a written orchestration or musical score which leads the o!server to
thin" of music and stringed instruments that are !ro"en. The images, or the
things named, of the first four lines have graduated !y degrees from the actual
things of the real world that they stand for to metaphor and personification,
and then to a simile. This is a movement that widens the frame of reference
that the tenor has to the vehicle. Hardy is using figurative devices, metaphor,
simile, pathetic fallacy, in a way that increases the tentativeness of the
comparisons. They resonate with the spea"er's thought and emotion at an
increasing remove from simple perception of actual details, a move that
!ecomes full-!lown in the second octave.
The first stana ends with the spea"er's awareness of the other humans for
whom the landscape is also familiar although their effect on it is minimied !y
the ver! #haunted#. He was a solitary spectator. They were li"e ghostly
presences that had retired to the comforts of their homes.
%nd all man"ind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.
The first stana esta!lishes through a natural setting that a significant time, the
end of day at the end of the year, is !eing recollected and retold !y a solitary
loo"er standing at a physical !oundary, the edge of the woods. The scene has
only the !arest traces of life, in which natural and human presences are
ghostly. What started as a simple description of a winter scene !y a physically
passive o!server su!tly develops into a "ind of mindscape that implies a vigil.
%lthough the situation of the poem is related in the past tense as a memory, we
experience it as an #eye-record# in process , to use Hardy's own term. Hardy's
use of figurative devices such as metaphor and simile, pathetic fallacy, his
mini-dramas and dialogue poems are typically means of exploring the activity
of perception.
Tom *aulin, in Thomas Hardy: Poetry of Perception, provides many examples
from Hardy's prose, private papers, marginalia, etc. as well as examples from
specific poems that ela!orate on the variety of Hardy's researches into matters
of perception, optical visions and illusions, and psychological varieties of
perceptiveness. In the poem #%li"e and -nli"e,# the experience of loo"ing
shows direct optical experience as a moment of seeing tinctured !y the activity
of the spea"er's mind,
>ut our eye-records, li"e in hue and line,
Had superimposed upon them, that very day,
6ravings on your side deep, !ut slight on mine? --
&Hardy, @A()
*aulin points out a similar idea in Bilton, where 8atan says #The mind is its
own place, and in itself : 4an ma"e a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven#. 5ne
condition Hardy often dramaties is the relationship !etween human
consciousness in a solipsistic state and the external world. This is a condition
that the 7omantics also ac"nowledged and strove to overcome. Hardy accepts
it as a part of man's emotional life. Hardy laments the losses caused !y lac" of
attention #When 2ife unrolled its very !est# in #The 6oing.# In other poems,
he evo"es many instances of moments when the scenery or weather coincides
and seems to !e in collusion with emotional states such as the rain in #8he
4harged Be,# which #>ent the spring of the spirit more and more# &Hardy,
.@@, C/').
*aulin 0uotes Hardy's notes on an essay !y 7us"in. 7us"in is o!+ecting to how
second-rate poetry !lurs reality when #it does not matter much what things are
in themselves, !ut only what they are to us#. The interest for Hardy seems not
to !e in deciding whether the received impression is true or false, !ut in how it
is affected !y the state of mind of the o!server. Hardy 0uotes 7us"in,
The foam is not cruel, neither does it crawl. the state of mind which
attri!utes to it these characters of a living creature is one in which
the reason is unhinged !y grief. %ll violent feelings have the same
effect. They produce in us a falseness in all our impressions of
external things, which I would generally categorie as the #pathetic
fallacy# & *aulin, 9A).
Hardy's speculations a!out the faculty of memory were influenced !y ideas
raised !y scientific empiricists who 0uestion whether the s"y remains #!lue#
after the gae is averted, for example. He was vitally interested in the activity
of perception and all its variations when the perceiver's state of mind comes
into con+unction with the landscape or external reality as it does in #The
$ar"ling Thrush.#
The second stana introduces the fact that this moment in time also mar"s the
end of a century. The landscape's features !ecome li"e an immense !ody layed
out. The first sentence shows the spea"er's mind encompassing huge spaces of
land and s"y into the frightening spectacle of the 4entury's corpse in its coffin.
It is a vision of death and cessation in elemental proportions. The s"y is a lid.
The image is the effect of a #vision# that is !oxing in the world and time.
#8eemed# is a lin"ing ver! that is associated with how something appears to
an individual's mind. Its tone is non-assertive, implicitly e0uivocal, and has
the informality of common speech.
The land's sharp feature seemed to !e
The 4entury's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death lament.
The second sentence, which completes the octave, emphasies earthly
shrin"age and dessication. The ending of the century is not a simple closing to
the spea"er, !ut an end which seems to sever it from any relation to the future.
3very spirit, all of vegetal and human life is under the pall of this death.
The ancient pulse of germ and !irth
Was shrun"en hard and dry,
%nd every spirit upon earth
8eemed fervourless as I.
#1ervourless as I# is a highly suspicious 0ualification for anyone who has
followed the escalation of emotional pitch in the poem. While the landscape
has !een painted in all of its funereal hopelessness, the vision is on a grand
scale of #ancient# things. The wind #laments#. 7ather than lac"ing in intensity
and ardor, the spea"er's emotions have !een !oiling up, enlarging the
individual response to a universal eclipsing of life force.
%t once a voice arose among
The !lac" twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
5f +oy illimited=
%n aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In !last-!eruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
-pon the growing gloom.
The third octave is the most irregular metrically, which is fitting !ecause it is
the site of a new, active, alive presence in the poem. The dar"ling thrush, in all
its homeliness and diminutiveness, is the corporeal voice of the real world. It
is a local manifestation of an aged sym!ol. The ad+ective #dar"ling# can !e
traced !ac" to Deats, other !ird har!ingers in 7omantic tradition, and Bilton.
>ut, for me, the choice to use it is moving !ecause it seems to de-mythologie
the event !y attaching the noun ending #-ling# to soften #dar"#, emphasiing
the commonal & as in #worldling#), and diminutive or familiar &as in
#yearling#, #darling#). The !ird's song is spontaneous and unpremeditated art
realied. It #flingEsF# its #soul# into the #gloom# in the antithesis of the
spea"er's previous flinging of his dispirited soul upon the landscape. It !rea"s
through the !oxed-in moment in a +oyful act. His exu!erance appears to the
spea"er to !e a choice, and not for mere survival in the #growing gloom#, !ut
for ardent and full-hearted participation. % lesser poet would have ended the
poem here. Hardy refuses to provide a purely cathartic moment.
8o little cause for carolings
5f such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
%far or nigh around,
That I could thin" there trem!led through
His happy good-night air
8ome !lessed Hope, whereof he "new
%nd I was unaware.
C9 $ecem!er
&Hardy, 9'G)
The spea"er has not !een convinced or transported out of the #growing
gloom#, !ut his response has !een to #thin"#. The landscape is not rewritten,
nor is the fact that an era is over, !ut his emotional response is to listen to the
!irdsong and thin" of hope. %lthough the #!lessed Hope# is a "nowledge the
!ird has and of which the spea"er is yet unaware !ecause he cannot see
anything in the landscape that +ustifies it except the !ird itself, his acceptance
of the unexpected #sign# emanating from a concrete reality, is where I find
Hardy at his most humane. Hardy, as the poet outside the poem, is providing a
dramatiation and a variety of #whole-seeing# as the dialogic voice. %nd, for
all of his negation, the spea"er has introduced the ideas of positive opposites
to the negatives of death, wea"ening eyes can strengthen with the new day and
new season, !ro"en musical instruments can !e repaired, hard and dry seeds
can sprout. These implied ideas prepare him, and us as readers, to accept the
poem's outcome. The spea"er in the poem is ta"ing #a full loo" at the Worst#,
a re0uired step in Hardy's thin"ing toward a #way to the >etter# &Hardy, ''@).
While Hardy states that #we seem to !e threatened with a new $ar" %ge#, he
shows one imperfect human response through the poem's spea"er. In the midst
of solipsism and despair, the spea"er, nevertheless, is capa!le of suspending
conviction and reacting with +oy to possi!ility. I find the moment !elieva!ly
epiphanic and unsentimental.
Works Cited
The Darkling Thrush - Thomas Hardy [1840-1928]
Relevant a!kground
The poet Thomas Hardy was born near Dorchester in England.
He is also famous for writing novels.
Hardy gained a love of music from his father. Music is a prominent feature of The Darkling Thrush.
Hardy gained his interest in literature from his mother.
t the age of !! Hardy moved to "ondon and started to write poems. These early poems praised country life.
#et Hardy didnt publish his poems until he was $%. He was &' when he wrote this poem.
Hardy wrote over ('' poems in his lifetime.
Hardys poems are straight to the point and sometimes gloomy in outlook. )n this poem he finds a source of
hope when a thrush suddenly starts to sing.
Hardys most common theme is about the way people struggle against fate.
Hardy*s themes also include rural life and nature+ love+ change+ time+ loss and death.
Hardys tone is usually ironic, that is he sees the une-pected twists and surprises of life. The twist in this
poem is that when the poet was in a sad mood due to winter a weak old thrush caused him to feel hope.
Most of Hardys poetry is relatively simple and yet skilful. However+ some of his poetic writing can be difficult
due to old.fashioned words and phrases.
Hardy loves to think in surprising images that appeal to the readers intelligence.
Hardys poems tend to be descriptive+ lyrical+ and regular in form. He is a poet who likes even lines and a set
rhyme scheme. /e see this in The Darkling Thrush.
)t is very important to note that in this poem the poet is alone and is en0oying his loneliness. He is
e-periencing a type of sweet sorrow. He is gloomy but he likes being gloomy. He has chosen his spot at the
gate+ and opted not to go inside.
He soaks up the mysterious gloomy atmosphere and listens first to the wind and then the thrush. He feels
uplifted by the thrush.
HThe Darkling Thrush opens with a picture of the poet looking at sunset as night falls. )t is dusk on the last
day of the nineteenth century.
/hen Hardy speaks the poem he is leaning on a wooden gate looking at the darkening countryside.
t the same time+ frost takes over the land like a grey ghost.
Hardy compares the shadows of sunset to the last drops or dregs of a drink.
He describes a desolate scene. Though it is sad+ he is attracted to the sorrowful mood of the place.
Hardy compares the sun to an eye that is losing power at sunset. This image suggests that sunlight is like a
s Hardy looks across the countryside+ the dark outlines of trees and sticks seem to stand out. They contrast
to the brighter sky in the west.
These upstanding stems of trees remind him of the strings of broken harps.
t the end of the first stan2a it is clear Hardy is alone. Hardy shows he is alone by claiming that the people
who had been out and about before sunset have all gone home to the comfort of their open house fires. The
poet therefore feels alone. He likes this.
)n the second stan2a+ Hardy imagines that the dark outline of hills and rocks form the shape of a giant corpse
laid out for burial. The cloudy sky forms the roof or canopy of the tomb or crypt. He en0oys feeling this spooky
3ecause it is the last day of the year and century+ Hardy makes a connection between the shape of the
landscape and a corpse at a wake. He has a vivid mind.
The wind blowing through the stems and trees makes funeral music+ a bit like a creepy harp at a
funeral service.
The fact that nothing is growing in the earth due to winter makes the land seem dead.
ll creatures on the earth seem to be lifeless or fervourless. The spirit of life seems to have died.
1uddenly+ in the third stan2a+ at this gloomy moment a frail old thrush begins to sing its sweet song.
The song of the bird+ perched in the twigs+ seems infinitely 0oyful or ecstatic.
Hardy is struck that the nearby thrush looks old and frail. )ts feathers are ruffled by the strengthening
evening wind. #et it has 0oy in its heart.
The poet imagines that the bird through its song is throwing its soul out to the spreading darkness.
)n the last stan2a+ Hardy claims the surrounding dark land provides little reason for this outburst of 0oyful
)t reminds him of a carol. The song begins to sweeten his gloomy mood.
Hardy suddenly realises the song of the thrush in the falling darkness represents hope.
The poet is in a pleasantly sad mood as he leans alone on the gate watching the century fade into darkness.
3ut he clings on to the sad mood. He is addicted to it. The hopeful song of the bird adds a new mood. Hardy
becomes aware for the first time that evening of a new hope of things to come.
He realises that there is a reason to hope+ without knowing what that reason is. )t is clear that the thrush
alone senses this hope and e-presses it.
This is probably natures way of reminding him that spring always follows winter. 4r it may be a spiritual
message from nature. )t is certainly uplifting.
Hardy sets the poem at sunset on the last day of the nineteenth century. He compares the sun to a weakening
eye and this shows Hardys regret at the fact that the day+ year and century are ending at once. Hardy feels
like it may be the end of the world. He shows his sorrow at the ending of the century by comparing the outline
or silhouette of the land to a corpse+ with the sky as the roof of a tomb. The darkness and the lifeless
appearance of nature depress Hardy. He seems to feel that everything comes to an end5 end of day+ end of
year+ end of century and end of life. Time moves on.
The title suggests that the poem is about a popular bird+ the thrush. 3ut the poem at first seems to focus on
the time of year and the state of the landscape. Hardy portrays a bleak or sad and gloomy winter landscape.
The trees seem broken. 6othing is growing in the earth. Everything is either getting weak or seems dead.
There are no leaves on the trees. The poet only sees stems and twigs. Humans stay inside at their fires rather
than look upon the winter scene. The frost is ghostly. The wind makes a sorrowful noise in the trees. 6ature in
winter is eerie or ghostly. 4nly a thrush breaks the dark wintry silence and its song shows up the empty
silence around it. The thrush represents something spiritual in nature that the poet suddenly becomes aware
7or no apparent reason a thrush bursts into song on the depressing last evening of the year and century.
Hardy seems to find comfort in the beauty of the thrushs song. The thrush may stand for the hope that spring
will return to the landscape. The song of the bird creates a balance between music and the howl of the wind.
The song of the bird compensates for the sadness of the wintry scene. The source of the birds 0oy is
mysterious. )t seems a spiritual e-pression of something deep in nature. The words of the poet suggest that it
is like a religious e-perience for him.
in nature The song of the thrush dominates the end of the poem. )t seems to change sorrow into happiness.
3efore the thrush sang+ the howl of the wind dominated the landscape and created a mood like a funeral. This
poem shows that nature can create either sad or 0oyful music. The weather and time of year can be a source
of sorrow or a source of 0oy. The poem shows that nature creates sad music that laments winter. 3ut nature
also creates 0oyful music that looks forward to the future. t one point of the poem+ the striking image of the
broken lyre suggests that Hardy is finished with music. The wind howling in the trees gives the impression of
someone playing a horrible tune on a broken lyre. This may be due to the overwhelming sadness that Hardy is
feeling. Then the song of the thrush seems to revive Hardys spirit. He feels 0oy at its music. Despite his
sorrow and despair+ Hardy creates a musical poem through rhyme and repetition. )t is strange that this poem
is both a lament for the death of music and a celebration of its rebirth.
1tructure . This poem has four stan2as with a regular number of lines in each+ eight.
8hyme . Every second line rhymes+ so there is a regular pattern. This is like the regular pattern of seasons in
Diction . 1ome of the words are unusual and belong to an old way of using English. /ords like coppice 9close
group of trees:+ spectre 9ghost: and darkling 9in the dark: are unusual nowadays. 1o too are bine.stems
9creepers:+ lyre 9harp:+ crypt 9tomb:+ germ 9seed:+ fervour 9life:+ evensong 9hymn:+ carolings 90oyful
song:+ terrestrial 9land:+ nigh 9near: and whereof 9of which:. Hardy also uses unusual combinations of
words like death.lament and outleant+ meaning leaning out. The combination blast.beruffled describes the
way the thrushs feathers are blown by the wind. Hardy structures his words into sentences that take up to
four lines. )t is important to notice the run.on.lines and read the poem accordingly. Hardy uses a lot of single
ad0ectives before nouns.
7ull 1tops and ;ommas . Hardy places a full stop at the end of every stan2a and either a full stop+ a semi.
colon or comma to form a break at line four in each stan2a.
;omparison . Hardy uses a metaphor to compare the frost to a grey ghost at dusk. Hardy uses a simile of a
broken lyre or harp to give us a picture of the leafless bine.stems or bare trunks that look black against the
western sky. Hardy uses the metaphor of dregs to suggest the fading light of dusk. )n other metaphors+ the
dark shape of the land is a corpse and the sky is a tomb. The poet uses the words evensong and carolings as
metaphors to suggest that listening to the thrush is a religious e-perience. The metaphor of the broken lyre
e-presses the idea that humans are too sad and depressed to make any more music.
<ersonification . )n referring to the suns eye+ Hardy is personifying the sun. He personifies the landscape as
a corpse. He personifies the wind because he imagines the sound it makes in the trees is a funeral song or
;ontrast 9difference: . Hardy contrasts himself as a depressed human to the 0oyful thrush. He also contrasts
himself+ the lonesome poet+ to everyone else who has gone indoors to en0oy the fires. Hardy contrasts the
thrush in the tree with its spiritual music to dead things in the ground+ terrestrial things. There is a contrast
between the unhappy sad mood of shrunken hard and dry and the 0oyful feeling aroused by the ecstatic
sound of the singing thrush. The poets despair contrasts to the birds happiness. There is a striking contrast
between the song of the frail bird and the image of the broken lyre+ suggesting human music has ceased.
Hyperbole 9E-aggeration: . Hardy e-aggerates the bleak mood by pretending that the earth is a corpse. )t is
like he is imagining the world is going to end 0ust because the century is ending. )t is hyperbole to suggest the
birds 0oy is infinite or illimited.
Tone . The tone throughout the poem is gloomy+ like when Hardy compares the landscape to a corpse and
when he refers to the growing gloom. The poet feels lonely+ especially in the image at the end of the first
stan2a. The reference to a spectre and the word haunted suggest an an-ious tone. These words in turn
create a cold+ eerie mood for the reader of the poem. The words crypt and corpse create a spooky
atmosphere. )n the last two stan2as the tone becomes hopeful due to words such as 0oy+ ecstatic+ happy
and hope.
8epetition . The fact that there is regular rhyme helps to emphasise the poets feeling that everything is
speeding towards death. )n another sense the rhyme and other sound effects create a poetic music that
echoes both the wind and the thrush in different parts of the poem.
ssonance 9similar vowel sound repetition: . )n the first stan2a a series of long e sounds in various words
creates a sad music that matches the meaning of the poem.
lliteration 9repetition of consonant sounds at the start of nearby words: . The b in blast and bird links the
bird and the strengthening wind.
1ibilance 9repetition of s sound: . 6ote how the s sounds in cause for carolings of such ecstatic sound
creates a soft music that suits the bird. This soft sound is in contrast to the harsh sound used by Hardy to
bring to mind the bleak wintry setting5 blast.beruffled.
Emily Dickinson
The speaker describes hope as a bird (the thing with feathers) that perches in the soul.
There, it sings wordlessly and without pause. The song of hope sounds sweetest in the ale,
and it would re!uire a terrifying storm to e"er abash the little #ird $ That kept so many
warm. The speaker says that she has heard the bird of hope in the chillest land% $ &nd on
the strangest 'ea%, but ne"er, no matter how e(treme the conditions, did it e"er ask for a
single crumb from her.
)ike almost all of Dickinson*s poems, ,-ope* is the thing with feathers%... takes the form of
an iambic trimeter that often e(pands to include a fourth stress at the end of the line (as in
&nd sings the tune without the words%). )ike almost all of her poems, it and
breaks up the rhythmic /ow with long dashes indicating breaks and pauses (&nd ne"er stops
%at all%). The stan0as, as in most of Dickinson*s lyrics, rhyme loosely in an &#1# scheme,
though in this poem there are some incidental carryo"er rhymes2 words in line three of the
.rst stan0a rhymes with heard and #ird in the second3 E(tremity rhymes with 'ea and
4e in the third stan0a, thus, technically conforming to an &### rhyme scheme.
This simple, metaphorical description of hope as a bird singing in the soul is another e(ample
of Dickinson*s homiletic style, deri"ed from 5salms and religious hymns. Dickinson introduces
her metaphor in the .rst two lines (,-ope* is the thing with feathers% $ That perches in the
soul%), then de"elops it throughout the poem by telling what the bird does (sing), how it
reacts to hardship (it is unabashed in the storm), where it can be found (e"erywhere, from
chillest land to strangest 'ea), and what it asks for itself (nothing, not e"en a single
crumb). Though written after 'uccess is counted sweetest, this is still an early poem for
Dickinson, and neither her language nor her themes here are as complicated and e(plosi"e as
they would become in her more mature work from the mid6789:s. 'till, we .nd a few of the
"erbal shocks that so characteri0e Dickinson*s mature style2 the use of abash, for instance,
to describe the storm*s potential e;ect on the bird, wrenches the reader back to the reality
behind the pretty metaphor3 while a singing bird cannot e(actly be abashed, the word
describes the e;ect of the storm%or a more general hardship%upon the speaker*s hopes.
In this lesson, we will examine the life of Emily Dickinson and the major themes of her poetry. From
there, we will focus on her poem 'Hope is the thing with feathers' and discuss how it relates to her
life and themes.
We also recommend watching Emily Dickinson: Poems and Poetry nalysis and !ames Fenimore
Coo"er#s T$e %ast o& t$e 'o$icans: T$emes( Summary ) nalysis
Emily Dickinson was born in 78<: in 4assachusetts. &lthough she was "ery close to her father
and siblings, she rarely left her house and had "ery few "isitors. #y the 789:=s, Dickinson li"ed in
almost complete isolation from the outside world, but still maintained some relationships through
letters. >t is only after her death that her poetry was disco"ered and published. 'ince their
publication, Dickinson has become recogni0ed as one of the strongest "oices in &merican poetry.
T$emes O& Dickinson#s Poetry
#ecause Emily Dickinson li"ed much of her life inside, her poetry focuses on her inner struggles.
Throughout her poems, she !uestions od and writes of her own struggles with faith, particularly in
her su;erings. >n addition, her poems also focus on her confusion with self6identity. Though she
li"es alone, she becomes someone through her writing. -owe"er, if no one is reading the poems, is
she really a person? Dickinson often feels imprisoned in her own body. @urthermore, Dickinson often
relates this !uestion of self back to her !uestions of od. Ahat role does od play in de.ning self?
Ahat situations does he create for people? @inally, Dickinson often writes on the power of words.
The strongest "oice Dickinson has is her own3 howe"er, this "oice is really only seen in her poetry.
5oetry becomes her language and her way to communicate with the outside world. 'he also shows
a strong relationship between nature and her poetry. Bften times, nature becomes a symbol in her
writing to e(plain the comple(ity of her relationships.
*ritin+ Style
Dickinson=s poems are usually lyrics, short poems with a single speaker who e(presses thoughts
and feelings. &lthough the poems are usually written with =>=, this does not mean it represents
Dickinson, Cust the speaker of the poem. 4any of Dickinson=s poems do not ha"e titles, but are now
recogni0ed by the .rst few lines of the poem. @inally, she usually follows a speci.c writing
pattern,common meter, which is alternating lines of 8 syllables and then 9 syllables. >t is
IJ HHopeK is the thing with feathersL...M N
important while reading her poems to listen to the syllables and accented words to .nd the pattern.
Summary nd nalysis O& #,o"e Is T$e T$in+ *it$ Feat$ers#
>n this poem, Dickinson is creating a metaphor of hope through a bird. The hope that is within the
speaker is much like a bird that continues to /y inside her. Ahile we may all e(perience some dark
times, hope can o;er some encouragement.
The poem opens with the line =-ope is the thing with feathers=. This starts the comparison of a bird.
The rest of the stan0a reads2 =That perches in the soul$&nd sings the tune without words$&nd ne"er
stops6at all=. @or the speaker, the hope that is inside continues to sing at all times. E"en when there
are no words to sing, the bird continues to create a song. @or the speaker, hope stays present,
always singing, always /ying.
The second stan0a creates some opposition for the bird (hope), but shows that hope can become
strong in a storm. Dickinson writes, =&nd sore must be the storm$That could abash the little
bird$That kept so many warm=. >n order for hope to feel abash or embarrassed, the storm would
ha"e to be "ery strong. >t would only be the most se"ere storms that would a;ect the bird.
Continue readin+---
Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
%nd sings the tune--without the words,
%nd never stops at all,
%nd sweetest in the gale is heard=
%nd sore must !e the storm
That could a!ash the little !ird
That "ept so many warm.
I've heard it in the chillest land,
%nd on the strangest sea=
;et, never, in extremity,
It as"ed a crum! of me.
$ic"inson defines hope !y comparing it to a !ird &a metaphor ) .
Stanza one
Hope is a #thing# !ecause it is a feeling= the thing:feeling is li"e a !ird.
$ic"inson uses the standard dictionary format for a definition= first she
places the word in a general category &#thing#), and then she
differentiates it from everything else in that category. 1or instance, the
definition of a cat would run something li"e this, a cat is a mammal &the
first part of the definition places it in a category)= the rest of the
definition would !e #which is nocturnal, fur-!earing, hunts at night, has
pointed ears, etc. &the second part of the definition differentiates the cat
from other all mammals).
How would hope #perch,# and why does it perch in the soulO %s you
read this poem, "eep in mind that the su!+ect is hope and that the !ird
metaphor is only defining hope. Whatever is !eing said of the !ird
applies to hope, and the application to hope is $ic"inson's point in this
The !ird #sings.# Is this a good or a !ad thingO The tune is #without
words.# Is hope a matter of words, or is it a feeling a!out the future, a
feeling which consists !oth of desire and expectationO *sychologically,
is it true that hope never fails us, that hope is always possi!leO
Stanza two
Why is hope #sweetest# during a stormO When do we most need hope,
when things are going well or when they are going !adlyO
Sore is !eing used in the sense of very great or severe= abash means to
ma"e ashamed, em!arrassed, or self-conscious. 3ssentially only the
most extreme or impossi!le-to-escape storm would affect the !ird:hope.
If the !ird is #a!ashed# what would happen to the individual's hopeO In
a storm, would !eing #"ept warm# !e a plus or a minus, an advantage
or a disadvantageO
Stanza three
What "ind of place would #chillest# land !eO Would you want to
vacation there, for instanceO ;et in this coldest land, hope "ept the
individual warm. Is "eeping the spea"er warm a desira!le or an
undesira!le act in these circumstancesO Is #the strangest sea# a
desira!le or undesira!le place to !eO Would you need hope thereO The
!ird, faithful and una!ashed, follows and sings to the spea"er &#I've
heard it#) under the worst, the most threatening of circumstances.
The last two lines are introduced !y #;et.# What "ind of connection
does #yet# esta!lish with the preceding ideas:stanasO $oes it lead you
to expect similarity, contrast, an example, an irrelevancy, a +o"eO 3ven
in the most critical circumstances the !ird never as"ed for even a
#crum!# in return for its support. What are the associations with
#crum!#O would you !e satisfied if your employer offered you #a
crum!# in payment for your wor"O %lso, is #a crum!# appropriate for a
Dickinson Syllabus
Emily Dickinson*s -ope is the Thing Aith @eathers, is the D> part of a much larger poem called
)ife. The poem e(amines the abstract idea of hope in the free spirit of a bird. Dickinson uses
imagery, metaphor, to help describe why -ope is the Thing Aith @eathers.
>n the .rst stan0a, -ope is the Thing Aith @eathers, Dickinson uses the metaphorical image of a
bird to describe the abstract idea of hope. -ope, of course, is not an animate thing, it is inanimate,
but by gi"ing hope feathers, she begins to create an image hope in our minds. The imagery of
feathers conCures up hope in itself. @eathers represent hope because feathers enable you to /y and
o;er the image of /ying away to a new hope, a new beginning. >n contrast, broken feathers or a
broken wing grounds a person, and conCures up the image of needy person who has been beaten
down by life. Their wings ha"e been broken and they no longer ha"e the power to hope.
>n the second stan0a, That perches in the soul, Dickinson continues to use the imagery of a bird to
describe hope. -ope, she is implying, perches or roosts in our soul. The soul is the home for hope. >t
can also be seen as a metaphor. -ope rests in our soul the way a bird rests on its perch.
>n the third and fourth stan0as,
&nd sings the tune without the words
&nd ne"er stops at all.
Dickinson uses the imagery of a bird*s continuous song to represent eternal hope. #irds ne"er stop
singing their song of hope. The .fth stan0a &nd sweetest in the gale is heard describes the bird*s
song of hope as sweetest in the wind. >t conCures up images of a bird*s song of hope whistling abo"e
the sound of gale force winds and o;ering the promise that soon the storm will end.
Dickinson uses the ne(t three lines to metaphorically describe what a person who destroys hope
feels like.
&nd sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.
& person who destroys hope with a storm of anger and negati"ity feels the pain they cause in others.
Dickinson uses a powerful image of a person abashing the bird of hope that gi"es comfort and
warmth for so many. The destroyer of hope causes pain and soreness that hurts them the most.
>n the .rst line of the last set of stan0as >*"e heard it in the chillest lands, Dickinson o;ers the
reader another reason to ha"e hope. >t is heard e"en in the coldest, saddest lands. -ope is eternal
and e"erywhere. The birds song of hope is e"en heard &nd on the strangest sea. -ope e(ists for
>n the last two lines, Dickinson informs us that the bird of hope asks for no fa"or or price in return for
its sweet song.
Eet ne"er in e(tremity,
>t asked a crumb of me.
-ope is a free gift. >t e(ists for all of us. &ll we must do is not clip the wings of hope and let it /y and
sing freely. >ts song can be heard o"er the strangest seas, coldest lands, and in the worst storms. >t is
a song that ne"er ends as long as we do not let it.
Ho"e is the Thing
#ith $eathers -
%mily Di!kinson
Emily Dickinson
wrote nearly !+'''
short poems and is
the greatest female
merican poet of
the nineteenth
century. 1he only
published seven
poems and was
almost unknown as
a poet during her
Emily Dickinson was
a lively+ sociable
youngster and
received an
e-cellent education.
1he learned a lot
about science+
nature and the
bible. Even as a girl+
she wrote poems.
1he adored her
strict father+ and
didnt relate to her
cold and distant
)n adult life+ Emily
Dickinson developed
into a private
person or recluse
and avoided contact
with people.
Emily Dickinsons
strange use of
capital letters+ her
surprising imagery
and pu22ling word
choice and word
order make her
poetry unusual. 1he
uses the minimum
amount of words.
Her dashes make
her uni=ue. Her
lines are like clues
to be figured out.
This is why her
poems were ignored
during her lifetime.
6ow readers regard
Emily as very
Many of her poems+
like Hope+ show
Emilys inner
struggle and
suffering. Emily
uses analogy or
parallel images to
convey her
Emily regards hope as a
=uality of the soul. 1he
compares hope to a bird
singing a non.stop tune. 1he
is celebrating hope as an
ever.present =uality. The
words at all emphasise this
)n the second stan2a+ Emily
describes the comfort hope
gives during difficult times.
Emily compares human
struggle to a storm+ and
shows that hope keeps her
spirits up during such a
storm. Hope warms the
spirit. Even a violent storm+
doesnt discourage hope.
Dickinson portrays the bird
and hope as heroic.
)n the final stan2a+ Emily
speaks from her own
e-perience. 1he claims that
hope helped her survive her
deepest problems. Hope+ like
a songbird that migrates
between different climates+
can always be heard. Hope
keeps the spirits up in
difficult times+ but asks for
nothing in return. Dickinson
uses an image of a tiny
crumb to show that hope
asks for nothing as a reward.
Hope is frail+ but
The words feathers
and little show the
frail physical side to
the bird and hope.
3ut hope+ like the
bird+ cannot be
defeated. )t can
survive any climate
or e-tremity+ no
matter how severe.
Hope never fades.
Hope always
appears in the soul+
no matter what the
crisis. Dickinson
shows this in the
fourth line5 and
never stops>at all.
Hope is faithful.
Hope is unselfish
Hope never asks for
anything in return+
not even a crumb
Hope is brave and
The bravery of the
bird is evident
because it shows up
in all climates+
whether stormy or
chilly. This shows
that hope will
always appear+ no
matter how much
danger or despair
torments the human
Dickinson re0oices
that hope is always
The use of an
endless song to
stand for hope is a
form of celebration.
)nalogy* nalogy is a
parallel situation which
continues over a number of
lines. )n this poem+ the bird
stands for hope. The words
feathers+ perches+ sings+
and crumb show that the
bird image continues
throughout the poem.
nalogy is a form of
continuous comparison.
(ym+ol* The bird is also a
symbol for the optimism of
the soul+ as it refuses to
surrender to despair.
,ontrast* The sweet sound
of the bird contrasts with the
harsh sounds of the storm or
gale. 1ore and sweetest
are a good e-ample of
dissimilarity or contrast.
-un!tuation* Dashes allow
the reader time to think and
feel+ like after the first line.
The reader tries hard to
imagine feathers stuck to
hope. This seems weird until
the words perches and
sings reveal the image of a
bird. The dashes create the
impression of a struggling
voice+ as if a violent wind is
carrying some of the words
away from the listeners ear.
The dashes help to make the
poets voice in the poem
seem remote or distant+ as if
she is speaking from another
(im"le di!tion* Even
though the word order is
strange+ most of the words
are simple. They consist
mainly of one or sometimes
two syllables. The first
stan2a illustrates this. The
simple diction or word choice
shows the
nature of hope. The only
word+ e-tremity+ that
breaks this pattern is a good
word choice because it
shows the difficulties that
hope can overcome.
Tone* There are tones of
mystery+ respect+ praise and
ama2ement. 4verall+ the
tone or attitude of the poet
is reassuring.
)tmos"here* There are
some frightening and creepy
images of harsh climates+
like strangest sea+ in the
poem. 3ut the bird and hope
overcome this and provide
an optimistic mood overall.
Dickinson succeeds in
creating a haunting
atmosphere with the
wordless tune of the bird
and its sudden arrival as it
perches in the soul.
)lliteration* <hrases like
strangest 1ea and without
the words create music in
the poem and strengthen the
impact of the images.
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