Hope Is the Thing with Feathers

by Emily Dickinson
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What is the tone in "Hope is the Thing with Feathers" by Emily Dickinson?

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Like the tone of speech, the tone of a poem often refers to the mood it evokes in the listener or reader. Of course, while such an experience is by its very nature subjective, a poem’s vocabulary, imagery, rhyme scheme, and even its pauses ensure most readers have particular and specific emotional reactions to the poem. “Hope is The Thing with Feathers” is built around the central, extended metaphor of hope as a bird that resides in our souls. Apart from bird imagery, the poem is spare and uncluttered. This ensures that the bird is at the center of our experience and imagination when reading the poem. We sense the bird trilling sweetly in the first stanza, fluttering against "the Gale" in the second, and singing its pure song across vast stretches of an unfamiliar landscape in the third.

Note the use of words like "sore" and "abash" in the second stanza, and the mention of “chilliest land” and the “strangest Sea” in the third. All these words and phrases evoke anguish, cold, and fear. Thus, the imagery and vocabulary of the poem together do create a mood of hope, but one tinged with a slight hint of melancholy. Of course, this mood mirrors our search and discovery of hope in real life. Dickinson does not offer hope as an empty platitude; it is a feeling that is hard tested and hard won. Like a bird or a “thing with feathers,” hope is resilient but also unbelievably fragile. Light and uplifting, it rules the air, yet is often threatened by life's storms. It is warm and fuzzy, like a bird gently held in one’s palm, but often cocooned by weird and cold realities. Further, just like a bird doesn’t ask us of a crumb, hope too asks for nothing in return, arriving at the darkest hour like a benediction. Despair is the necessary context for hope, because without the dark, we would not understand the light. In my opinion, this subtext ensures the tone of Dickinson’s poem is hopeful, bittersweet, and realistic.

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There are various different tones evident in Dickinson's poem. At points the tone is defiant, reflective, and proud.

In a poem comprising twelve lines, five lines begin with the word "and." The repetition of sentences beginning with the word "and" helps to emphasize how many positive characteristics "Hope" has. The frequent repetition of the word "and" suggests that those positive characteristics are endless. This creates a proud tone, as if the speaker is boasting of a friend she is proud of.

Throughout the poem, the speaker describes how "Hope" "never stops—at all," and how it is "sweetest" in the most difficult circumstances. At the end of the poem, the speaker emphasizes that "Hope" has given her so much but "never" asked for anything in return. All of these words and phrases are intensifying words and phrases. They all suggest that "Hope" defies even the most testing and troubling of circumstances.

Another characteristic of the poem is the number of dashes, which creates frequent pauses. There are dashes at the ends of the first ten lines of the poem, and there are six mid-line dashes. All of these dashes suggest that the speaker is pausing to reflect upon the nature of the "Hope" she describes. Often, after a dash, the speaker will qualify the idea preceding the dash. For example, when she says that "Hope" will "never stop," she then qualifies this, after a dash, with the phrase "at all." Qualifications like this suggest that the speaker is constantly reflecting on the words she is speaking.

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In the first stanza of this poem, the tone is light-hearted. This is created through Dickinson's image of a bird, perched and singing a tune. By placing this bird inside the soul, Dickinson also creates a peaceful and almost-idyllic tone.

In second stanza, however, Dickinson talks about a "gale" and a "storm," which has a dramatic impact on the tone by turning it violent. This is further reinforced when Dickinson talks about how the bird is abashed as it faces this storm.

In the final stanza, the gentle and light-hearted tone returns to the poem as Dickinson expresses her gratitude towards the bird. No matter what has happened, she says, the bird has never asked for anything from her, not even a "crumb." This expression of her gratitude adds sentimentality and sincerity to the poem's tone, leaving the reader with a sense that hope has indeed been restored.

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With tone meaning the speaker's attitude toward the subject, the emotional coloring or meaning of a poem, the reader must consider the homiletic style that Dickinson uses in her poem "Hope is the Thing with Feathers."  For, like the Psalms and religious hymns, there is a reverential and uplifting tone to this verse:

Hope is the thing with feathers

That perches in the soul

And sings the tune without the words

And never stops at all.

Thwn, too, there is something of the divine in this hope with feathers that rests within the soul--a reassuring thought, indeed, and reverential as it can withstand the storm, a storm that "must be sore" if it can "abash the little bird."  Hope, "the thing with feathers,"-stands above the storm that attempts to damage.  This hope abounds "in the chillest land" and "on the strangest sea" without demanding anything.  It gives strength; it lifts the spirits with wings.  The reader is reassured that hope gives without asking, for

...never in extremity

It asked a crumb of me. 

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