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Hope is the thing with feathers by Emily Dickinson: A closer look at and a lesson for an ESL teacher

I love and yet have mixed feelings about a poem by Emily Dickinson, but it doesn’t stop me from using it in a poetry lesson for students who are learning the English language. I let the class memorize the first stanza to exercise their brains thinking about English and to better feel the rhythm of the words.

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

I also want the class to break the words into syllables and think about meter. The poem is written in tetrameter (And sings the tune without the words), which you might say are eight syllables or eight accents (short, long, soft, loud, soft, hard) (da Dah da Dah da Dah da Dah) or four feet, and trimeter (And never stops at all), which you might say are six syllables or six accents (da Dah da Dah da Dah) or three feet.

It is enough for my students to think about the syllables. They are not sophisticated poets and I am not interested here in (nor really feel confident to teach) metrics, stress and accent. To my ear the first line of the poem could be a trochee, an iamb and an anapest or just plain old iambs with the last foot missing a beat. These things are debatable and my job is to teach foreign speakers as best as I can to speak and think about English, not to scan it.

The first line, the tetrameter, is missing one syllable, or half a foot, although the last word, a plural word, feathers, is given extra weight in the long sound of its final syllable thers—an important thing those feathers. And except for the first line with the feathers all of the lines in this and the next two stanzas follow the tetrameter/trimeter pattern.

Listening for rhyme is an accessible exercise for English language learners. There are near rhymes at the end of each line in the first stanza: feathers/words, soul/all. The next stanza follows with much closer rhymes.

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

That little word abash (to make somebody bashful, quiet) has within its gentle confines the word bash: the word is its own oxymoron, outside the gentleness, inside the violence, not to abash the little bird, but to bash it quiet.

The third stanza is interesting.

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

I like the last stanza’s scheme: sea, extremity and me all rhyming; but then one realizes that the chillest land, which is an extreme in itself, connects in that sense with the other three, and land and sea are each other’s extremity as well. Even the adjective chillest is an extreme way of saying chilliest. Everything is rhyming and connecting with extremity followed by me, the last word: I who can go no further than the end of my own fingers. But when I hope, do I go beyond myself? No, hope may fly away never asking one crumb of me, but ultimately I’m stuck to ask the question, “Is hope a useful bird or a useless one?” when the ship is sinking and I am going, “Glub! Glug! Glub!”

I get the students thinking about metaphors. If hope could take form, what form would it be? And have them write a poem about hope using a metaphor. Nobody has to rhyme of course but everybody has to write.

Jessica wrote the following, a fitting image for hope:

is a little bird
in the dark

Felton, a student in my Wuhan workshop writes a poem of hope dashed by unrequited love.

Hope is a shy girl
Beautiful amazing the flowers
To date with a boy in the square
When the boy arrived there
Wishing to have bitter and sweet to share
He found nobody anywhere
She left him alone in tears