A well-known poem by American poetess Emily Dickinson (1830-1886):


“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.

Dickinson, in this simple poem, compares hope to a bird perching in the inmost mind, like a songbird in its cage. And like a songbird, it continually sings its wordless tune — that is, hope is continually expressed wordlessly, from deep within the mind (“the soul”)

She says hope is sweetest in the gale — meaning it is when life is difficult, and our emotions turbulent as a windstorm, that hope is appreciated and valued by us all the more. And it would take a very terrible (“sore”) storm in life to hinder the hope that has given so many something to live for in times of great trouble.

Hope is heard in all kinds of circumstances. Dickinson is not being literal but rather metaphorical when she speaks of hearing it in the “chillest land” — that is, the coldest and most forbidding of circumstances, and on the “strangest sea” — those times when life seems so vast and trying and unfamiliar. And yet through all these trials, even to the farthest limits of human endurance — hope asks nothing of the person who hosts it, but sings on without reward or encouragement.

One of the worst things that can happen to us is to lose hope — that bright, singing spark that keeps us going no matter how difficult life may be, no matter how troubling the psychological challenges. It is at those times that we most need to listen carefully for the “thing with feathers” that sings its encouraging song deep within us.


  1. What an appropriate poem for these current dark days! Whilst we have been in lockdown there has been a big reduction in the levels of traffic noise, including the noise from aeroplanes! Watching garden birds and hearing birdsong has been one of my greatest joys during this pandemic and as Emily Dickinson says “Hope is the thing with feathers”.
    I also read a new book “Birdsong in a Time of Silence” by Steven Lovatt and it reinforces everything said here.

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