At a glance:
- Author: Emily Dickinson
- First Published: 1891
- Type of Work: Poem
- Genres: Poetry
- Subjects: Nature, Fear, Birds
This is the finest example of Dickinson’s nature verse, for it perfectly juxtaposes elements of superficial gentility against the inner barbarity that characterizes the workings of the world. The narrator chances to see a bird walking along a pathway, but just as the scene appears perfect, the bird seizes upon a worm, bites it in two, and devours it. The bird drinks some dew on nearby grass (note the alternate for a drinking “glass”), then graciously steps aside, right to a wall, to allow a beetle to pass. The bird, like one fearful of being caught in an unacceptable action, glances around quickly with darting eyes.
“Cautious” describes both the demeanor of the bird and that of the observing narrator. Both feel threatened, the bird of the possible consequences of its savagery, the narrator because she is next on the bird’s path. She “offered him a Crumb,” not because she admires the bird but out of fear and expediency. The bird, sensing that it has escaped any potentially harmful consequences for what it has done, struts a bit as “he unrolled his feathers” and “rowed him softer home—.” Ironically, its walk is too casual, softer than oars dividing a seamless ocean or butterflies leaping into noon’s banks, all without a splash. Behind its soft, charming, and genteel facade, nature is menacing, and its hypocritical attempts to conceal its barbarism make it more frightening.
Boruch, Marianne. “Dickinson Descending.” The Georgia Review 40 (1986): 863-877.
Brantley, Richard E. Experience and Faith: The Late-Romantic Imagination of Emily Dickinson. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.
Carruth, Hayden. “Emily Dickinson’s Unexpectedness.” Ironwood 14 (1986): 51-57.
Eberwein, Jane Donahue. An Emily Dickinson Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998.
Ferlazzo, Paul, ed. Critical Essays on Emily Dickinson. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984.
Grabher, Gudrun, Roland Hagenbüchle, and Cristanne Miller, ed. The Emily Dickinson Handbook. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998.
Juhasz, Suzanne, ed. Feminist Critics Read Emily Dickinson. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983.
Kirk, Connie Ann. Emily Dickinson: A Biography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004.
Lundin, Roger. Emily Dickinson and the Art of Belief. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 2004.
MacNeil, Helen. Emily Dickinson. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986.
Pollack, Vivian R. A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Vendler, Helen Hennessey. Poets Thinking: Pope, Whitman, Dickinson, Yeats. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004.
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