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Relevant BackgroundSummary | ThemesStyle

Hope is the Thing with Feathers - Emily Dickinson [1830-1886]

Relevant Background

  • Emily Dickinson wrote nearly 2,000 short poems and is the greatest female American poet of the nineteenth century. She only published seven poems and was almost unknown as a poet during her lifetime.
  • Emily Dickinson was a lively, sociable youngster and received an excellent education. She learned a lot about science, nature and the bible. Even as a girl, she wrote poems. She adored her strict father, and didn’t relate to her cold and distant mother.
  • In adult life, Emily Dickinson developed into a private person or recluse and avoided contact with people.
  • Emily Dickinson’s strange use of capital letters, her surprising imagery and puzzling word choice and word order make her poetry unusual. She uses the minimum amount of words. Her dashes make her unique. Her lines are like clues to be figured out. This is why her poems were ignored during her lifetime. Now readers regard Emily as very original.
  • Many of her poems, like ‘Hope’, show Emily’s inner struggle and suffering. Emily uses analogy or parallel images to convey her thoughts.


Emily regards hope as a quality of the soul. She compares hope to a bird singing a non-stop tune. She is celebrating hope as an ever-present quality. The words ‘at all’ emphasise this point.

In the second stanza, 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, doesn’t discourage hope. Dickinson portrays the bird and hope as heroic.

In the final stanza, Emily speaks from her own experience. She 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 strong.
    The words ‘feathers’ and ‘little’ show the frail physical side to the bird and hope. But hope, like the bird, cannot be defeated. It can survive any climate or ‘extremity’, no matter how severe.
  • Hope never fades.
    Hope always appears in the soul, no matter what the crisis. Dickinson shows this in the fourth line: ‘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 fearless.
    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 spirit.
  • Dickinson rejoices that hope is always present
    The use of an endless song to stand for hope is a form of celebration.


Analogy: Analogy is a parallel situation which continues over a number of lines. In this poem, the bird stands for hope. The words ‘feathers’, ‘perches’, ‘sings’, and ‘crumb’ show that the bird image continues throughout the poem. Analogy is a form of continuous comparison.
Symbol: The bird is also a symbol for the optimism of the soul, as it refuses to surrender to despair.
Contrast: The sweet sound of the bird contrasts with the harsh sounds of the storm or gale. ‘Sore’ and ‘sweetest’ are a good example of dissimilarity or contrast.
Punctuation: 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 listener’s ear. The dashes help to make the poet’s voice in the poem seem remote or distant, as if she is speaking from another dimension.
Simple diction: Even though the word order is strange, most of the words are simple. They consist mainly of one or sometimes two syllables. The first stanza illustrates this. The simple diction or word choice shows the down-to-earth nature of hope. The only word, ‘extremity’, 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 amazement. Overall, the tone or attitude of the poet is reassuring.
Atmosphere: There are some frightening and creepy images of harsh climates, like ‘strangest sea’, in the poem. But 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.
Alliteration: Phrases like ‘strangest Sea’ and ‘without the words’ create music in the poem and strengthen the impact of the images.


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