Understanding Poetry – Emily Dickinson: “Hope”

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The Magic of Poetry

The idea of analysing and understanding poetry might seem daunting or even coldly scientific. The moment someone says the word “poetry” many people put up walls in their minds. They think of dreary classrooms and ad nauseam repetition of lines. Or they ask why the poet doesn’t just say what they mean in simple, easy to understand, everyday language.

This form is often underappreciated – especially in schools where (in my experience) educators are often apprehensive about delving into deep meanings, allusions, and poetic devices. This leads to stilted lessons that leave the impression that poetry is boring.

I hope to dispel these notions in a series on Understanding Poetry. Poetry is a powerful art form that can enrich and empower our lives.

To prove this, I find it best to start with an example.

“Hope”

Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1667290
Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson (1830-1886) is one of America’s most important poets. She had an interesting, yet reclusive, life (I highly recommend you take the time to read up about her). Her work is imbued with sharp observation, imagination, and wit.

Her work is characterized by a sharp-eyed first-person speaker. She also had a thing about nature (she was an avid botanist in her spare time) and eyes (more on that later).

Her work is steeped in emotion and often exposes the hard, cold truth about love, life, and death. Dickinson poems are not so obscure as to lock out the reader – and they are not so simple that the meanings are self-evident.

“Hope” is a thing with feathers, by Emily Dickinson

“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.

(Source: Poetry Foundation)

Analysing the poem

Now what? Here are all these words, but what am I supposed to do with them?

Here are some helpful techniques that have helped me:

Step 1: Read the Poem

This sounds obvious, but it can be easily overlooked. Read the poem once – at your usual speed. Don’t worry about analysing it as you go – just read. After that, read it a second time. This time take it slowly. Read every word. Try to make sense of the poetic devices. In fact: read it out loud – listen to the words that you are saying. Remember that poetry (by some sense) is music that is written down, so sound is highly important.

It might be worth reading the poem a full three times.

Step 2: Literal-level and Themes

Look at what is literally stated. Look at the words. Are there words you do not understand? Why did the poet choose certain words or terms? Looking at the above, it is clear that the poem is about a bird. The words “feathers”, “perches”, “sings”, and obviously “Bird”, tell you this. Also, the poet uses dashes “-” a lot. What’s with that? What does it do the words?

You must remember that poetry – as an art form – always tries to convey a message. Like “the moral of a story” that you might find in a fairy tale, for example.

Alright, once you’ve identified the words of the poem (don’t forget the title), understood their meaning, and uncovered some possible themes, it is time to move the next step:

Step 3: Identify the tone

Every poem contains one or more emotion. This is how the poet communicates the meaning (or moral) of the poem to the reader. It is your job to identify what emotion the poet is feeling and is trying to convey. This is well worth remembering for any poem.

Let’s look at the above example:

What emotion is the poet feeling?

Is she angry? No, there is no evidence of that. Happy? Hmm…not quite, but almost. Sad? Not really.

What she is feeling in the poem is hopeful. How do I know this? In this case our job is made easy because she is telling us – right from the start – what the emotion is she is describing. Look at line one. Do you see? The entire poem is trying to describe exactly what hope is, what it does, and – most importantly – what it feels like. Understanding this unlocks a whole world of meaning in this poem, doesn’t it? Read the poem one more time with this in mind.

Keep in mind that not all poems will so obviously state the emotion they are dealing with. But, knowing that there ALWAYS IS ONE will make analysis easier.

Step 4: Structure

Poems have shapes, and shapes are important to the meaning/sound of a poem. Structure reveals or conceals the rhyme of a poem or even alters the pace. You should identify how the shape of the poem influences the meaning and discuss this in your essay. You can, for example, ask questions like why is the poem divided up into stanzas?, what does each stanza mean?. Remember, poems don’t jump randomly from topic to topic – every word and stanza is there for a reason.

In the above example, each stanza deals with a different aspect of Hope. We can break it down as follows:

Stanza 1
  • Comparison of “hope” and a bird (line 1)
  • It sits inside the speaker (line 2)
  • It comforts the speaker (line 3)
  • It never stops comforting the speaker (line 4)

We can thus conclude that this first stanza is a description of the creature (hope) and what it does (sings/comforts). This is where the poet introduces and establishes the metaphor. (Side note: notice the enjambment – what do you think this signifies?)

Stanza 2
  • The bird sings sweetly even in a storm (line 5)
  • Any storm must be ashamed… (line 6)
  • …to be the thing that attacks the bird… (line 7)
  • …which gives comfort to so many people (line 8)

Here the poet talks about what happens to the bird (described in the first stanza). She creates a comparison (metaphor) between storms and dark times in a person’s life. Also take note of the double meaning of “sore” here: it can mean pain, but it also means ascending (flying higher). Why do you think this is significant?

Stanza 3
  • The bird sings in cold, dark places (line 9)
  • The bird sings on stormy oceans (line 10)
  • Even in the most extreme conditions… (line 11)
  • The bird makes no demands on the speaker (line 12)

Here the poet continues the thought of the previous stanza, but now tells us what the bird does in such situations. The different kinds of bad situations have no effect on the little bird (hope) that resides in a person, and the bird doesn’t ask anything in return. Also note of the double meaning of “crumb” here – what do you think it is?

To sum up:

Stanza 1 – creation of metaphor

Stanza 2 – bad things try to attack the bird

Stanza 3 – the bird keeps singing no matter what

What is the meaning of the poem? Hope keeps us going – no matter how bad things get, it is always there.

Other things to note

This poem is an example of a lyric poem – a kind of poem where a single speaker expresses her/his feelings and thoughts.

Dickinson’s poems usually follow the conventions of common meter – 8 syllables followed by 6 syllables:

And – sings – the – tune – with – out – the – words [8 syllables]

And – nev – er – stops – at – all [6 syllables]

Have a look at the other lines of the poem. They all work like this. Remember that number of syllables is not the same as number of words (extremity in the second stanza is four syllables: ex-tre-meh-tee). The only line that doesn’t conform to this structure is the first. Why is this? Is the poet somehow saying that hope is a thing with two syllables? I’ll leave that one up to your interpretation.

Last Words

Does this unlock the poem for you? What do you think? Is there something I missed? Please share below.

If there’s a poem you need help with for school, university, or just for yourself, please let me know in the comments below. Also, if you like this sort of thing, please be sure to sign-up for my email list, follow me on Twitter (@CalliopeWriter), or join the Community on Facebook.

Top Image: Concert of Birds, by Frans Snyders (Attributed) (1629-1657), [Public Domain], Wikimedia Commons

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