Today, I'm reminiscing about my days as an Honours English student at MacEwan University. While most may think missing essay writing is completely bonkers, I always felt such a profound sense of accomplishment and productivity after spending hours writing an essay - pride knowing that I nailed it with my argument and my style (although a friend once told me my essays were too poetic for academia). I worry, now, that I don't spend enough time critically analyzing and assessing what I read - be it poetry, prose, or non-fiction - and I fear that I've lost my touch, so I'm beginning to read with a pencil in hand, underlining and making notes in the margins. At any rate, today I offer you some poetry and a stylistic comparison of these two poems, "Hope is the Thing with Feathers" by Emily Dickinson and "Bluebird" by Charles Bukowski. It's been six years since I wrote this essay, but I still think it's quite lovely, especially since I adore these two poems. (Note: The slashes indicate a line break).
.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
there’s a bluebird in my heart that / wants to get out / but I’m too tough for him, / I say, stay in there, I’m not going / to let anybody see / you.
there’s a bluebird in my heart that / wants to get out / but I pour whiskey on him and inhale / cigarette smoke / and the whores and the bartenders /and the grocery clerks / never know that / he’s / in there.
there’s a bluebird in my heart that / wants to get out / but I’m too tough for him, / I say, / stay down, do you want to mess / me up? / you want to screw up the / works? / you want to blow my books sales in / Europe?
there’s a bluebird in my heart that / wants to get out / but I’m too clever, I only let him out / at night sometimes / when everybody’s asleep. / I say, I know that you’re there, / so don’t be sad.
then I put him back, / but he’s singing a little / in there, I haven’t quite let him / die / and we sleep together like / that / with our / secret pact / and it’s nice enough to / make a man / weep, but I don’t / weep, do / you? - Charles Bukowski
Birds are part of a long tradition of literary symbolism, as demonstrated by Emily Dickinson and Charles Bukowski, vastly different American poets from different literary periods, who employ birds metaphorically in their poems, “Hope is the Thing with Feathers” and “The Bluebird,” respectively. Dickinson is a 19th century poet known for the prolific volume of poems she wrote, as well as her obscure lyrical style and penchant for introspective and dark themes. Also known for dark themes, Bukowski is a 20th century poet and writer known for his alcoholism, womanizing, and bitterness. While their approaches, tones, and overall styles differ immensely, both Dickinson and Bukowski employ songbirds to ultimately assert the same theme: the relentless perseverance of hope. Through a stylistic analysis and comparison of Dickinson and Bukowski’s poems that explores each poet’s use of diction, style, and overall tone, the similarity in depth of meaning between the two poems is revealed.
Dickinson’s poem is short, with only three stanzas. The first two construct a metaphorical image of hope, narrated in what appears to be third person unpersonified:
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. (1-8)
She begins her poem with evocation: “a thing with feathers” (1) that “perches” (2) and “sings the tune without the words” (3). Dickinson cleverly selects words that are automatically associated with birds in order to indirectly conjure up the image of a bird. Before she even uses the word “bird,” Dickinson has already created a sympathetic personification of hope as being fragile and precious, but also eternal because it “never stops at all” (4). The idea of a “little bird” (7) perched and singing suggests vulnerability, especially when juxtaposed with a “gale” (5) and a “storm” (6), both of which are fierce and destructive: strong words in which to frame a “little bird.” Dickinson presents this bird, hope, as being treasured through the use of words like “sweetness” (5), to refer to its song, and the phrase “that kept so many warm” (8), to refer to its nature. Furthermore, her diction reveals the eternalness of the bird because it “sings the tune without the words,/ And never stops at all/ And sweetest in the gale is heard” (3-5), demonstrating the bird’s perseverance against all forces, even the wind. Interestingly, Dickinson’s tone begins melodically, seemingly light, until the second stanza, when she introduces the storm: “And sore must be the storm/ That could abash the little bird” (6 -7). Her use of the word “sore” implies anger and offense, which is further illustrated in its juxtaposition with “abash” which connotes shame and disconcertment; Dickinson asserts that only a severe and vehement force could quiet the sweet and delicate bird, changing the tone from light to dark.
The last stanza introduces a change in narrative voice through the introduction of first person, making the subject of hope suddenly personal:
I’ve heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me. (9-12)
Again, her word choice constructs a powerful image of hope’s far-reaching song, expanding from being eternal, to being perseverant, almost relentless. Not only does hope continue to sing, to exist, in powerful winds and storms, but “in the chillest land” (9) and “on the strangest sea” (10). The utter relentlessness of hope is most strongly displayed in the last two lines in which hope continues to give its song against extreme adversity, without seeking recompense: “Yet, never, in extremity,/ It asked a crumb of me” (11-12). Dickinson holds to the bird metaphor in the last line with “crumb,” a word that evokes a sense of desperation (reaching for crumbs, begging for scraps), which, even under the direst of circumstances, hope does not require. Essentially, Dickinson’s short, concise and melodic style is laden with poignant imagery that undeniably asserts the continuous persistence of the human capacity to hope.
In contrast, Charles Bukowski’s poem, “The Bluebird,” has a personified first person narrative, which instills it instantly with intimacy, whereas Dickinson’s narration gradually becomes personal. Also, Bukowski’s poem is long, with five stanzas and an abundance of repetition: the first four stanzas begin with “there’s a bluebird in my heart that/wants to get out/but” (1-3). Moreover, he immediately introduces the bluebird, in both the title and the first line, which is also a songbird similarly encased in a human cage of sorts: ensconced in the “heart” whereas Dickson’s is “perche[d] in the soul” (2). Bukowski’s use of repetition parallels the bird’s desire to escape, in effect, revealing its persistence from the start. So, unlike Dickinson, who builds up to the songbird and its relentless charity, Bukowski’s approach kicks off with that relentlessness, setting the bluebird up as the narrator’s prisoner because it wants out, but the narrator is “too tough” (3, 18) and “too clever” (28) for him. He “pour[s] whiskey on [the bluebird] and inhale[s]/ cigarette smoke” (9-10), suffocating it, trapping it. The repetition itself also demonstrates the narrator’s repeated suppression of the bluebird, which could be interpreted as hope because the narrator relies on hopelessness to get by and to be successful:
stay down, do you want to mess
you want to screw up the
you want to blow my books sales in
By keeping the bluebird a secret, “stay in there, I’m not going/ to let anybody see/you” (4-6), Bukowski presents its revelation as catastrophic, hazardous, to a narrator who copes with his life through alcohol, cigarettes and meaningless sex (9-11). Allowing hope to infiltrate his “tough” and calloused exterior would mean the destruction of his sense of self, the image he presents to the world and to himself (19-25). Like Dickinson, Bukowski’s diction is the tool he uses to construct this image of a hardened man suppressing his sense of hope. Harsh, clipped words with debase connotations like “tough,” (3, 18) “whores,”(11) “screw” (22) and “blow” (24), aid Bukowski in creating such a powerful image. Bukowski’s narrator is the sore storm that abashes the bluebird, that aims to quell hope, as Dickinson’s poem illustrates. Nevertheless, the narrator does not completely neglect his imprisoned hope. He releases it from captivity “at night sometimes/when everybody’s asleep” (29-30), reassuring it, nurturing it, by saying, “I know that you’re there,/so don’t be/ sad” (31-33). By soothing the bluebird, by letting it out, the narrator encourages it to keep trying, to remain persistent, to persevere. Again, his word choice produces intimacy; the language is simple and direct without fancy adjectives or big words, it lacks pretense or pretension: it tries to be honest. In the last stanza, Bukowski’s narrator exposes his own vulnerability, his reliance on the tenacious bluebird, but quickly regains his fierce façade:
Then I put him back,
But he’s singing a little
In there, I haven’t quite let him
And we sleep together like
And it’s nice enough to
Make a man
Weep, but I don’t
The bluebird’s resilience and the narrator’s reliance on it are shown through the bird’s lingering song and the narrator’s admission, “I haven’t quite let him/die” (36-37), a phrase that indicates the narrator’s reluctance to let go of the bird completely. Furthermore, the admission, “and we sleep together like/that/with our/secret pact” (38-41), betrays the narrator’s intimate relationship and “secret” reliance on the bluebird, on maintaining some crumb of hope. Again, the simple rawness of the words gives them power and poignancy, making Bukowski’s tone one of sadness, and his theme the utter tenacity of hope in the face of utter hopelessness. Like Dickinson, then, Bukowski insists upon the human inclination to garner hope, and how even a crumb of hope remains relentless.
Ultimately, both Dickinson and Bukowski succeed in creating metaphors of hope, using birds symbolically to display its contradicting qualities of fragility and tenacity. While their diction, style, tones, and approach differ immensely, both poets accurately and poignantly achieve the same effect, the same theme, the same end: hope is eternal.
Bukowski, Charles. “The Bluebird.” Last Night of the Earth Poems. New York, NY: Ecco/Harper Collins, 2002. 120-121. Print.
Dickinson, Emily. “Hope is the Thing with Feathers (254).” Academy of American Poets, 2011. Web. <http://www.poets.org/printmedia.php/prmMediaID/19729>