Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
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.
Bibliography (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
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