Why does Emily Dickinson use the bird image in "254"?

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carol-davis | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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In the Biblical story of Noah and the ark, after forty days on the water, Noah needs to know if there is a place to land where life can start again. He sends a dove out to search.  She returns with an olive branch giving hope to Noah that life can begin. The bird becomes forever coupled with the spirit of hope. 

Hope is a feeling; hope is an emotional state; hope is a desire—Hope is a belief that something positive will happen in the circumstances of one’s life. In plain words, an example of hope comes when a man believes his life’s situation will improve. 

In Emily Dickinson’s poem “254,” an extended metaphor brings to life the comparison between the idea of hope and the joyous freedom of the bird. The reader can see this picture: the bird perches in the heart or the soul, continually chirping his song without any words.

Stanza 1

The soul represents the place inside a person where hope would be found and metaphorically is the perch that the bird sits.  Dickinson, in her cleverness, never uses the word bird in her poem. She gives enough hints for the reader to understand the exact image that she describing. The song the bird’s sung is the feeling that hope gives a person when he is at his lowest.  It builds a person up and gives him the will to go on.

 The feathers themselves represent hope and life. If a bird has lost its feathers, it is ill or possibly has lost the ability to fly.  But this bird [hope] that rests inside of man has its plumage.

Stanza 2

In the midst of a storm, the bird sings the sweetest.  It would have to be the most terrible of all storms to deflate the little bird that has given so much hope to people.

And sings the tune without the words…

And never stops--at all.

And sore must be the storm—

That could abash the little bird

Transversely, when man has his worst struggle, he needs to hear that tune the bird sings.  That is when the hope that is inside of all men is needed most.  The warmth from the feelings of optimism supports and buoys up the spirit of man. The bird’s song of hope can be heard above the loudest storm forces.

The verse ends with an image of the person or force that would quash the comfort or warmth received from the bird of hope. Hope usually is not lost to a person but it can be lessened.

Stanza 3

Whether a person is in the coldest place on earth or on a faraway ocean, hope costs a person nothing.  Hope is a gift from God.  Its price is free, yet without it, man has not purpose or reason to live.

The bird perched in the soul of man sings a never ending song within a person’s heart. The song that is heard is something that is longed for or desired and waiting just around the corner.

spotinc's profile pic

spotinc | Student, Undergraduate | eNotes Newbie

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Dickinson's poems are often written in common meter, alternating lines of eight syllables and six syllables.  In common meter, the syllables usually alternate between unstressed and stressed (′).  This pattern--one of several types of metrical "feet"--is known as an "iamb."Common meter is often used in song lyrics (think "Amazing Grace"). As Dickinson's poems were not written to be published, she often sent a poem as is...even if there was a seven beats rather than the accepted eight at times.

Also, the rhyme scheme of Dickinson’s poems is not always exact. Rhyme that is not perfect is called “slant rhyme” or “approximate rhyme.” Slant rhyme, or no rhyme at all, is quite common in modern poetry, but it was unusual in poetry written by Dickinson’s contemporaries.


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