It’s painful to say anything against Emily Dickinson. Arguing with that little woman is like picking a fight with Sylvester Stallone, where no one is rooting for you and you didn’t want to fight in the first place. I love Dickinson, and having said that, I have qualms with her on an issue that’s especially interesting to us as Catholics—hope, and our role in maintaining it.
When I was eight, my godparents gave me one of the first books of poetry I owned for myself. It was Catherine Kennedy’s A Family of Poems, an erratic sampler of works from the literary giants mixed in with limericks and haikus. Many of the poems were too complicated for a children’s collection, but all of them were paired with beautiful watercolor illustrations, so I went through the book many times.
That was where I first encountered Emily Dickinson, in a poem called “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers,” which was printed next to a bright green puff-ball bird on a branch. It’s a short poem. Here’s the first third:
“‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all…”
The poem goes on to describe the little bird singing unceasingly through “gales” and “storms.” It’s an encouraging image, one that made sense to me when I was a child, and even in high school, during difficult times.
As I got older, though, I had to hold on more intentionally to my faith, as we all do when we start coming face-to-face with the trials we’d only heard about. And hope, like faith, seemed less of a given. The fluffy bird from the poetry book became less credible; it was clear that the hope missing from my life had to be more than that tame little creature.
Here are the lines from Dickinson’s poem that give me pause. She writes of the bird:
“I’ve heard it in the chillest land—
And on the strangest Sea—
It asked a crumb—of me.”
They’re beautiful lines, of course, but in revisiting the poem, I find it difficult to accept that hope asks nothing of us. On the contrary, it often seems to demand too much. If we lessen our efforts, we seem to fall further; if we neglect to feed hope, even with crumbs, it’s hard to hear it singing.
But then again, hope is one of the three theological virtues, “infused” in us by God. It’s vital to remember that this is something for which we must rely on Him—we ask for it and trust He’ll provide it. But this doesn’t mean we’re entirely passive in the process. Praying for hope, fervently and unceasingly, is an effort and a trial in those times when we really need it.
A Catholic Existentialist, Gabriel Marcel, gave me a perspective that lets me read Dickinson in a more mature way than I had before. He identifies hope with activity, insistence, and energized conviction. He writes, “Hope consists in asserting that there is at the heart of being, beyond all data…a mysterious principle which is in connivance with me. …It is quite useless to tell me of discouraging cases or examples: beyond all experience, all probability, all statistics, I assert that a given order shall be re-established, that reality is on my side in willing it to be so. I do not wish: I assert; such is the prophetic tone of true hope.”
I think Marcel’s hopeful assertion and Dickinson’s twittering songbird can exist side-by-side. Both are persistent—the bird, like the assertion, “never stops at all”—and both are seen at their truest in the face of trials. And maybe all of the insistence that makes up Marcel’s hope, all of the focus, steeliness, steady-heartedness, are less than a crumb compared with the reality of hope that God infuses us with. For now, it may seem to us like our little part in hope’s drama—our choice to cling to it, receive it—is the leading role; when all is said and done, however, I don’t doubt it will seem as if we did next to nothing.
I do think (as an note) that the bird is more like a bird of prey than a songbird, chasing off fears with frightening precision; at the same time, it remains the caring hope that, as Dickinson writes, has “kept so many warm.” But it has wings, for sure, and carries us to places about which our dim imaginations can’t sustain belief.