In "A Bird came down the Walk--" by Emily Dickinson, what does the phrase "rowed him softer home" mean?
This phrase occurs in the poem "A bird came down the walk--" by Emily Dickinson. The phrase is part of a metaphor: "he unrolled his feathers / And rowed him softer home— / Than Oars divide the Ocean." In this part of the poem, the speaker has cautiously approached a bird she has seen come down the walk. After the bird hops up to "the Wall," presumably a low wall in a garden, the speaker offers the bird a crumb. The bird, however, is not tame enough to take the crumb from the speaker, and it "unrolls his feathers." This image makes one think of the slow unfurling of a ribbon or some other fabric that has been rolled up--this is what the bird's spreading its wings reminds the poet of. The next part compares the bird's wings to oars and the sky to the ocean. As the bird's wings beat the air in flight, it is as if the oars of a boat are dipping into the water and pushing off to make the boat advance--but instead, the bird advances through the invisible air.
The word "softer" describes the smooth and effortless feeling that flying conveys. The phrase is actually grammatically incorrect. "Softer" is an adjective, and thus it should be modifying a noun, but in this sentence it modifies the verb, "rowed." To be correct, Dickinson should have written, "and rowed him home more softly than oars divide the ocean." Such a construction would have destroyed the beautiful lilting rhythm of the poem which corresponds well to the seamless flight Dickinson describes. While using the incorrect form of the word could be considered just playing with syntax, in specific terms, it could be synesis, where the correct grammatical expression is sacrificed in order to obtain the meaning that is desired. Dickinson is aiming for a direct comparison between the softness of oars in the water and the softness of wings in the air. Thus by using the word "softer," Dickinson simplifies and clarifies the comparison she is making. The bird's flight is "softer" than a boat's passage through water.
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