The Last Poem I Loved: “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers” by Emily Dickinson

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A decade ago, in an undergraduate English class, I learned to love poetry. I scanned Emily Dickinson’s “I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,” and understood that the “Boots of Lead” were more than pallbearers. They were also scratchings from a pencil, words making up the feet of Dickinson’s poetry. Boom. A light switch. At that moment, I realized, ah, this is poetry. I like poetry.

I have loved Dickinson ever since. During a course in graduate school, I read every single one of her 1,789 poems, making grand exclamations of tattoos I would get with her verses and gobbling up every dash and odd capitalization. Time has passed. I never got a Dickinson tattoo. And yet, The Poems of Emily Dickinson still calls to me from the shelf. Anytime I open it up, a new poem needles itself into my brain and I’m left silently repeating the words long after I’ve closed the pages.

The other day, I found “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers –” and experienced that odd surge of emotion that poetry brings out. I had a smile on my lips, but the back of my eyes stung, a bizarre mix of joy and melancholy from how perfect words can be, how much they express with so little.

Dickinson begins:

“Hope” is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

Hope. No, wait. “Hope.” Those cheeky quotation marks are everything. Dickinson realizes that hope shifts and flutters and changes within you. While Dickinson’s “‘Hope’” could resemble some shade of “God” or “Faith” in this poem (or, at least, that’s what I first thought), when I read the opening stanza, I immediately thought “Portland.” Most recently my breed of hope has been Portland, Oregon.

Five years ago, I moved to San Francisco and, in a nutshell, it was a bad fit. There’s much to admire about the City by the Bay—but, for me, it instantly felt suffocating. Even though my career as a copywriter thrived and my apartment looked wonderfully, charmingly picturesque, I experienced a constant ebb and flow of unhappiness, an unshakeable feeling that I had gotten off at the wrong exit. On certain days, I’d have to call my husband from the car or Muni or BART because I’d feel so overwhelmed that I couldn’t summon the strength to walk home. I’d ask him to meet me, just so I wouldn’t feel alone while surrounded by so many people.

But I had something “perch[ed] in the soul,” something that gave me energy and kept my mind moving. I knew I couldn’t live in San Francisco forever. And so, every year, little by little, my husband and I made plans to move to Portland. We started looking for jobs and “‘Hope’” became moving, a new home, forests, rain… Portland turned into the “tune without the words –,” that little bit of confidence that hummed within me, an intangible daydream.

But Dickinson goes on:

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 come from a long line of mental illness: bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and clinical depression run in my genes. I had an aunt who committed suicide shortly after I was born, creating a shadow of worry to live under my entire life.

At my darkest moments in San Francisco, I thought about the aunt who I never knew. I wondered how much worse she must have felt than I did. What has to happen to “abash the little Bird / That kept so many warm –”?

My five years in San Francisco ended with a bed bug infestation, mice living in the walls of my apartment and a commute that would take me three hours round trip (on a good day). I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t relax, I was prescribed muscle relaxers for the enormous knots that had bunched in my neck, I imagined creatures crawling everywhere…

I wondered, how “sore must be the storm –”?

Then my husband got a phone call for a job in Portland. Two weeks later, he was flown up for an interview. It felt like being rescued. I was back “in the Gale.” I imagined trees and quiet and sleep…

He didn’t get the job.

The weekend we found out, we had to go to LA for a family event. I could not stop crying. I cried at the sight of a seeing eye dog, I cried at the thought of cancer as I walked through the metal detectors, I cried at the stifling feeling of being on a plane, I cried seeing my sister-in-law, I cried seeing my mom, I cried seeing my dad. I couldn’t stop.

And yet…

I’ve heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

On the return flight to San Francisco, my husband told me that we weren’t going to wait any longer to move to Portland. We’d make it work no matter what. Life was waiting.

What does “‘Hope’” then become? For me, for that moment in my life, “‘Hope’” transformed from something inside me to a human being. I was at my lowest, “in the chillest land / And on the strangest Sea –,” and “‘Hope’” returned.

“‘Hope’” then can be a person. “‘Hope’” can be taking control of your life.

That’s what those quotation marks do. By putting in that wonderful piece of punctuation, Dickinson pulls your attention to the fact that it’s a thing that can change, it can be slotted. It’s almost like she’s saying, this word, “hope,” but not the actual word “hope.” So, in essence, travel, food, wine, running, friendship, and, yes, hope, can all be “the thing with feathers –,” the thing that won’t ask “a crumb” of you, but makes you strong. Whatever keeps you going, that’s your “thing with feathers –.”

Now I sit in Portland as it rains. I live next to a forest and I smell the woods and I have time again to read poetry because I no longer commute for an hour and a half each way. And so, today, my “thing with feathers –” is what Dickinson probably intended. Besides the mutability of the word inside the quotation marks, the punctuation also makes you realize that literally you are reading a word. What can change within quotation marks and be slotted? Words.

“Words” are “the thing[s] with feathers –.” “Poetry” is “the thing with feathers –.”

And I couldn’t ask for anything better to live in my soul. Because poetry, like Dickinson, like home, like true love, “sings the tune without the words –,” and even though there might be moments, a dash-worth of time when things look bad, these things “never stop[s] – at all –.”


Alexa Dooseman is a freelance writer living in Portland, Oregon. Her work has appeared on McSweeney's Internet Tendency, HelloGiggles, Defenestration and other places. Find her online at www.alexadooseman.com. More from this author →