I’d like to take the time here to express my views on the poetry of Emily Dickinson without being under the microscopic scrutiny of Leaving Certificate examiners who merely wish students to recite pages upon pages of notes about a poet they never truly connected with.
Dickinson is an intensely personal poet, yet somehow when she writes she remains completely universal. For me, Dickinson is an unconventional misanthropist who explores the abstract and literal through imagery, concise language and dramatic, broad thematic focus.
Initially, I didn’t find Emily Dickinson all that interesting. (Perhaps that’s because the Irish educational system is so good at sucking the life out of everything.) Yet somehow when I picked up my poetry book again, I connected.
I am at a stage in my life where I feel academically drained. I’m stressed about my exams – I have fears of failing, of getting by, of not fulfilling my potential. The fact that my future is based on one exam on one particular day is quite daunting. So, how is that I somehow always manage to get by?
Hope is the thing with feathers – That perches on the soul – And sings the tune without the words – And never stops – at all –
I’ve looked up definitions of hope, many of them gearing towards the same thing, such as hope is the feeling that what is wanted can be had. Yet my mind is still unsure of this abstract thing that floats around our bodies. Luckily, we have writers who are willing to impart their profound insights with us and here is where Emily Dickinson first spoke to me.
Emily Dickinson’s buoyant, energetic, ebullient tone convinces me immediately as she presents the first image of hope. Firstly, she metaphorically labels hope as appearing in the form of a bird. She is determined to prove that her visualisation of hope is undoubtedly true by giving this image of hope the definite article. It is not merely “a” thing but “the” thing. She is confident in this literal idea of hope. “With feathers” reminds us of warm ruffles of comfort, just as hope comforts us. She states that hope is an intrinsic part of our being that is always there, inspiring happiness among all, and do you know what? I believe her. Yes, we don’t need waves of hope when we are at our happiness but we do always need hope. Hope that we will get up in the morning. Hope that we will complete our study timetable. The little things we do require hope, a very natural thing inside us all, as natural as the birds that sing outside our doors in the morning. Hope sings a song within us all and keeps our bodies in harmony.
Emily then proceeds to darker images – “gale”, “storm” and “that could abash the little bird”. Even during life’s adversities, “the chillest land”, hope can be heard. This is a wonderful, feel good image for all. The thundering sounds of a storm cannot drown out the sweetness the melody that bird sings.
This idea is concretised by the poem’s ending as it moves from abstract feelings to the literal “Me”. She is in existence because of this abstract, relentless feeling that hope moves beyond life’s limitations.
For Dickinson, nature is bliss. Perhaps this is why she relates hope to a bird as she even admits she only wants to “but drink the more” of nature in her poem “I taste a liquor never brewed”.
This poem still remains shocking considering Dickinson’s Puritan upbringing. She rebels against conformity, and once again gives the abstract beauty of nature a tangible sense by relating it to the feelings that people experience through the medium of alcohol. “Dew”, “blue”, “sun”, and “run” create an uplifting rhyme in this poem and allow the readers to feel the positive feelings reflected on in this poem. Her reference to “pearl” deepens our understanding of Dickinson’s admiration towards nature. She considers it to be precious like a pearl.
Another important message linked to nature that I believe readers should consider while reading “A bird came down the walk” is portrayed in an interesting manner. So we know by now that Dickinson was borderline obsessive with nature, yet she also understands and respects her place with it. In this poem she describes an encounter with a bird. She sets the atmosphere by creating realistic imagery of the bird’s actions. “A bird came down the walk – He did not know I saw – he bit an Angleworm in halves And ate the fellow raw”. She captures the primitive aspect of nature, instinct for survival, while also describing the bird’s polite mannerisms, “hopped sidewise to the wall to let a Beetle pass”. What particularly strikes me is the poet’s position in the poem, she is overlooking, spying ruefully. She gains confidence that she hasn’t been spotted yet by this bird. She describes the bird by comparing its anatomy to man made materials. “Frightened beads” and “velvet head”. In doing this it seems the poet is yearning to be on the same level as the bird and she relates him to human made materials. However, she learns an important lesson as the bird unrolls his feathers and departs when she reveals herself to him to offer him a crumb. The scene takes on a deeper significance. We are but spectators of nature, to appreciate and honour, but we need to respect our place in that fragile balance and refrain from interrupting it.
What I particularly admire about Dickinson is her ability to explore poetry in extremity. She is not limited to a narrow thematic focus, she spreads herself across a significant spectrum of themes. This includes the theme of death.
“I felt a Funeral, in my Brain” opens with a combination of both the literal “Funeral” and abstract “felt”. This automatically makes the atmosphere of this poem heavy and foreboding. This is further emphasised by full, ominous sounds such as “drum” and “dumb” to portray the emotional intensity of a mental anguish the poet is suffering from. The funeral is an extended metaphor to develop this mental illness the poet is subjected to. The simple use of the word “and” creates an incessant feeling, that things will continue to worsen and really highlights the skill of Dickinson as her choice of repetition creates a never ending feeling associated with the poem as it is read. “And then a Plank in reason, broke, and I dropped down and down” employs heavy emotions of anguish and despair succumbing to an irrevocable end of perhaps death. Yet what is interesting about this poem is the noteworthy dash “-” that finishes the poem. Although this person has given into the pressure, it still continues. We are reminded of the line “and never stops at all” from another poem. Does mental anguish somehow defeat hope here? After all, it does say in “Hope is a thing with feathers” that some factor “could abash the little bird”. Is this that factor? Mental turmoil which Emily Dickinson falls a victim to?