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.

Dickinson defines hope by comparing it to a bird (a metaphor) .

Stanza one

Hope is a "thing" because it is a feeling; the thing/feeling is like a bird. Dickinson 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. For instance, the definition of a cat would run something like this: a cat is a mammal (the first part of the definition places it in a category); the rest of the definition would be "which is nocturnal, fur-bearing, 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 soul? As you read this poem, keep in mind that the subject is hope and that the bird metaphor is only defining hope. Whatever is being said of the bird applies to hope, and the application to hope is Dickinson's point in this poem.

The bird "sings." Is this a good or a bad thing? The tune is "without words." Is hope a matter of words, or is it a feeling about the future, a feeling which consists both of desire and expectation? Psychologically, is it true that hope never fails us, that hope is always possible?

Stanza two

Why is hope "sweetest" during a storm? When do we most need hope, when things are going well or when they are going badly?

Sore is being used in the sense of very great or severe; abash means to make ashamed, embarrassed, or self-conscious. Essentially only the most extreme or impossible-to-escape storm would affect the bird/hope. If the bird is "abashed" what would happen to the individual's hope? In a storm, would being "kept warm" be a plus or a minus, an advantage or a disadvantage?

Stanza three

What kind of place would "chillest" land be?  Would you want to vacation there, for instance? Yet in this coldest land, hope kept the individual warm. Is keeping the speaker warm a desirable or an undesirable act in these circumstances? Is "the strangest sea" a desirable or undesirable place to be? Would you need hope there? The bird, faithful and unabashed, follows and sings to the speaker ("I've heard it") under the worst, the most threatening of circumstances.

The last two lines are introduced by "Yet." What kind of connection does "yet" establish with the preceding ideas/stanzas? Does it lead you to expect similarity, contrast, an example, an irrelevancy, a joke? Even in the most critical circumstances the bird never asked for even a "crumb" in return for its support. What are the associations with "crumb"? would you be satisfied if your employer offered you "a crumb" in payment for your work? Also, is "a crumb" appropriate for a bird?

Dickinson, Online overview
"For each ecstatic instant," p. 2
"I taste a liquor never brewed," p. 2
"Safe in their alabaster chambers," p. 3
"I heard a fly buzz when I died," p. 21
"It was not death, for I stood up," p. 22
"A bird came down the walk," p. 13
"I like to see it lap the miles," p. 27
"Pain has an element of blank," p. 31
"A narrow fellow in the grass," p. 44
"I'm nobody! Who are you?" p. 9
"After great pain a formal feeling comes" (handout)
"The soul selects her own society" (handout)
"The heart asks pleasure first," p. 24
"I'll tell you how the sun rose," p. 11
"Presentiment is that long shadow on the lawn," p. 36
"Success is counted sweetest" (handout)
"I cannot live with you," p. 29
"He fumbles at your spirit," p. 11
"I felt a cleaving in my mind," p. 43
"My life closed twice before its close," p. 49
"Wild nights! Wild nights!" p.5
"She sweeps with many-colored brooms," p. 3
"Hope is the thing with feathers," p. 5
"I felt a funeral in my brain," p. 8
"I had been hungry all the years," p. 26
"I started Early--took my Dog--" (handout)
"My life had stood a loaded gun" (handout)
"Because I could not stop for Death," p. 35
"If you were coming in the fall," p. 23
**Supplemental Reading**
      Sample Midtern and Student Answers

Core Studies 6 Page || Melani Home Page