The wings of hope
Raymond Ramirez | Tuesday, April 4, 2017
This is a trying time of year even for the most sanguine among us: it’s been a long winter, a political transition brings uncertainty and even sports seem to make more headlines for off-field offenses than on-field triumphs. Perhaps as a result of that darned liberal arts education of mine, at this time I find myself thinking about things with feathers and Emily Dickinson.
Born in Amherst, Massachusetts, in 1830, Dickinson lived there all her life. Her grandfather founded Amherst College, and her father served as the college treasurer. Her mother was unobtrusive and fragile. After attending Mount Holyoke Female Seminary, Dickinson lived with her parents and began writing poetry in earnest, completing more than 1,800 poems. Many of her poems dealt with tragedies and death, and our response to such traumas. In discussing her early work, one historian noted: “Dickinson experienced an emotional crisis of an undetermined nature in the early 1860s.” In addition to the sensitive poet, the nation at large experienced an easily determined emotional, as well as existential, crisis in 1861.
The year started ominously. In February the Confederate States of America coalesced with Jefferson Davis, a former U.S. Army officer, as its president. The next month Abraham Lincoln was sworn in as President of the United States of America. In April, Confederate forces opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. The balance of the year saw a steady parade of states secede from the Union, eventually building an eleven state Confederacy with a population of 9 million persons, including almost 4 million slaves. Prospects for the Union looked grim as it suffered crushing defeat at Bull Run, just 25 miles from Washington, D.C., and ended the year in a diplomatic tangle over the capture of a Confederate vessel bound for England. Even the normally stoic U.S. President seemed flustered as he called for “One war at a time.”
It was against this backdrop of fear and uncertainty, that Dickinson wrote an inspirational plea for the nurturing of hope:
“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.”
These “things with feathers,” these birds, appear to be fragile and subject to being dashed by storms. Yet, they survive, and even more remarkably, sing their birdsongs. Hearing the songs of birds after the storm, and even during it, brings us warmth and comfort. In Dickinson’s view, that is the nature of hope. It is an ineffable sensation of trust in the future, and an inclination to listen for the faintest notes of confidence even during the roar of discord.
After the Civil War ended, and the nation moved on to the heavy work of rebuilding a broken country, Dickinson continued to write. Her work was largely unshared during her lifetime and was not collected and published until after her death in 1886. Hope was, for Dickinson, a private source of comfort that sang to the poet as a caged bird, unshared and only to be appreciated at a later time.
Gerard Manley Hopkins, an English poet and Jesuit priest, was a contemporary of Dickinson who also invoked a feathered protagonist in his most famous sonnet, “The Windhover.” The poem, dedicated “to Christ our Lord” casts a kestrel, the “windhover,” as a symbol for Christ. We catch the bird in mid-flight, hovering between heaven and earth with its wings outstretched:
“I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-/ dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding/ Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding/ High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing/ In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,/ As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding/ Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding/ Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!/ Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here/ Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion/ Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!/ No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion/ Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,/ Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.”
Generations of English majors have been “stirred for a bird” in parsing the many symbols and wordy pleasures in this poem, but for now it is enough to feel the stirring caused by the mastery of flight and dramatic hunting techniques of the raptor. It ends with a gold-vermillion gash — and since we know it was dedicated to Christ — the victim, the sacrifice, is the windhover itself.
The poem stirs us as much as Dickinson’s ode to hope, but it now moves the focus to a specific “thing with feathers” in the image of Christ, who brings comfort to a “heart in hiding.” He “rebuffed the big wind” as did Dickinson’s birds facing the storm, but in addition invites us to exalt in his example, taking strength from his strength, and “the fire that breaks from” him. So keep the faith, and keep hope hovering in your heart. The path may be crooked and largely hidden from sight, but look to each other for comfort. In the words of the Irish saying: “giorraionn beirt bother” — two shorten the road.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.