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Featured Poem: Hope is the Thing with Feathers by Emily Dickinson

Written by The Reader, 9th January 2012

To fit with the New Year, we’re giving a new look to the Featured Poem. You’ll still have a wonderful poem to kick start your week on a Monday morning as before, but each week’s selection will have been specially chosen by a different member of TRO staff, who have collected many stories of their own to fit nicely alongside the poems being shared.

Starting us off is the choice of Lynn Elsdon, Project Worker in Get Into Reading Wirral, who gives us an insight into how one poem can spark off lots of discussion from many different perspectives in a group setting.

I run a Get Into Reading group with recovering addicts, and in my first group after Christmas, I thought I would take along something hopeful. ‘Hope’ by Emily Dickinson really got people talking.

After reading the poem a couple of times, conversation started with people sharing images that had struck them in the poem. Someone liked the idea of hope as a pretty bird ‘that perches in the soul’; another person saw hope as a feathery winged angel in ‘hope is the thing with feathers’. Someone thought it was funny to make something like hope a separate thing from you. We went on to think about what hope means: a few people said that it was something about wanting or imagining better from the future, and faith that things will change. Yet, someone said even if you are completely content, you can still feel hope. Another person responded that it is impossible to feel completely content, that that is unrealistic. A further person said that hope is something basic, fundamental, to being a human being.

After dipping back into the poem, we talked about the idea that hope ‘never stops at all’, that it is always there for us to tap into. A lot of people seemed uplifted by this thought, but one man seemed disturbed. He disagreed. He has been hopeless, and he sees people every day without hope. Another man said to him passionately: still, hope exists even when you can’t feel it! That hope is survival. But the first person stuck to his guns, saying no, there have been times in his life when he has survived just going through the motions, hopelessly. I re-read the lines, ‘And sore must be the storm / that could abash the little bird / that kept so many warm’, and wondered about the word abash. We talked about how that word makes hope sound vulnerable to being knocked, and dampened. The man who was doubtful about the constancy of hope said that perhaps sometimes hope can be dormant but never fully destroyed, that you have to wait and hope it will come back.

We laughed at how we all kept using the word hope as we were talking without realising it, and we were surprised by how commonly used it is in everyday speech. One man re-read the last lines, ‘and never, in extremity, / It asked a crumb of me’, saying it was his favourite bit. He thought there was something very hopeful in it.

Hope Is The Thing With Feathers

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I've heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

Emily Dickinson

6 thoughts on “Featured Poem: Hope is the Thing with Feathers by Emily Dickinson

Joanna says:

That’s great, thank you – fascinating to hear insights from your GIR groups.

Great poem for a Monday morning, particularly.

Colin says:

A perfect poem for a New Year reading group.

Sam Shipman says:

I love this poem, it always makes me feel better when I read it. I’m glad it worked well in your group Lynn.

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