Study Guide

Hope is the thing with feathers Introduction

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Hope is the thing with feathers Introduction

Emily Dickinson: reclusive genius or overrated shut-in?

That's the kind of debate prompt that has poetry critics taking sides and cracking their knuckles over their laptops. Regardless of where they stand on the question, one thing is certain: Dickinson is one of the giants of American poetry, a figure who did her own thing—both in life and in her poems.

It wasn't always that way, though. Like so many folks who earn the label of "genius," Dickinson had to kick the bucket before her work was truly appreciated—or even published for that matter. She was born in 1830 in Amherst, Massachusetts to a father who was an aspiring community leader and politician. Given his domineering drive and, it has to be said, Emily's gender, she was quickly overshadowed.

On the plus side, she did enjoy the benefits of a good education. She did well in school, but she also developed a reputation for rebelliousness. She wasn't rude; she simply didn't follow the herd. That was particularly the case when it came to religion—which was a big part of schooling back in her day. Dickinson was down with G-o-d, but she was more interested in something else: poetry.

In fact, Dickinson left school after just one year at Mount Holyoke Seminary. She returned home to live with her family, where she pretty much stayed until she died—no husband, no all-inclusive cruise trips, not even so much as a long weekend in the Poconos. This fact has led a lot of folks to paint Dickinson as a reclusive spinster, hiding up in her room all day like some kind of nineteenth-century Howard Hughes with Kleenex boxes for slippers.

The reality, though, was that she enjoyed a lot of relationships, which she maintained by writing approximately… 60 million letters. Okay, so that might be a slight exaggeration, but Dickinson's letters are how we know so much about her life today.

We know, for example, that she was interested in publishing her poems, but that she wasn't a shameless self-promoter like some poets we could mention (looking at you, Mr. Whitman). She did manage to get a few things in print, but she wasn't known as a poet in her own lifetime.

Lucky for us, Dickinson kept all the poems she wrote—about 1,800 of them—in hand-stitched collections called "fascicles." When she died, in 1886, her family passed them along for publication. The first selection was published four years later, and it sold like gangbusters. Still, it wasn't until 1955 that the entirety of her collection made it into print.

And when it did come out, well, let's just say the editors left a pretty strong impression. They added titles, fixed punctuation, and pretty much hammered Dickinson's poor poems into a shape they liked better. It was only recently—in 1998, 112 years after her poems were discovered—that the original versions of Dickinson's poems were published, preserving her mysterious dashes and spellings and re-ordering the poems in chronological order.

"'Hope' is the thing with feathers" is number 314 in that bunch. In its form and style, it's a poem that's typical of Dickinson's work: sparse but compact, philosophical but approachable, meditative but, ultimately, inspirational. But don't just take our word for it.

What is Hope is the thing with feathers About and Why Should I Care?

Why bother, right? You're never going to figure out calculus, that person that you're crushing on will never like you back, and Justin Bieber will never follow you on Twitter. You might was well just pull the covers up over your head and stay in bed for… approximately ever. After all, what's the point of even trying?

We're just so happy you asked that. Do we have a pep talk for you. Actually, Emily Dickinson is the one with the pep talk. She's laying it all out here in "'Hope' is the thing with feathers," and it goes a little something like this:

What's the point, you wonder? Why go on? I've got one word for you: hope. Hope is with us, every day, every step of the way. It will be there when you rip your pants at the school assembly. It will be there when your pet terrapin dies. It will be there at the very last game of the season, even though your favorite team hasn't won all year. Hope, Shmoopers, is what sustains you.

So when life is serving you a giant plate of lukewarm terribleness, remember this poem. It will remind you that there is a force in the universe, giving you a reason to get up the next day, to keep on keeping on.

Are you motivated yet? Just read the poem and you will be. Trust us—Emily Dickinson is practically a 19th-century poetic version of Matt Foley.

Hope is the thing with feathers Resources


Foundational Dickinson
This site features a super-comprehensive bio, plus plenty o' links to Dickinson's work.

Life of Emily
Here's another great resource, providing helpful info about Dickinson's life and work.

Back at the Homestead
The Dickinson house is now a museum, which you should totally visit.

In the Archive
This site provides a look at Dickinson's original, handwritten poems.


For the Kids
Here's a child's sign language interpretation—totes adorbs.

Kinetic Vid
This animated version of the poem is pretty slick.

Bird Is the Word
We find this bird video montage pretty soothing.


Reading Loop
Enjoy multiple readings of the poem in one recording.

Sing It, Children
Here's a kids' choir's take on the poem.

Trailer Bride
When you heard this poem for the first time, did you wish for a musical version, complete with a singing saw? Well… wish no more.

Can We Add Banjo?
Here's another country music take on this poem.


Classic Emily
This is one the few existing portraits of our poet.

Second Look
Here's another view of Ms. Dickinson.

Primary Source
This is pretty cool. It's an image of Dickinson's hand-written draft of the poem.

Articles and Interviews

"Dickinson 101"
This article offers a helpful primer on her work.

"Her Own Society"
This article sheds more light on Dickinson's relationships with friends and family.


The Poems of Emily Dickinson
This is the version you want, without any of those outside corrections messing things up.

My Wars are Laid Away in Books
This is a great biography of Dickinson—check it out.

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