What do you think of when you hear the word "ballad"? Rock stadiums? Teased hair? Pained expressions on singers' faces? You do if you're like us—hopelessly stuck in the '80s.
But before the likes of Aerosmith and Ratt (with two T's) were wailing away about their babies who left them, a ballad was something just slightly different. Specifically, it referred to a form of poetry that was popular mainly because it was easy to remember. That meant that, in the days before universal literacy, folks could remember and pass along stories in this handy form.
It's so handy, in fact, that the ballad meter became a popular choice for church hymns. Ever heard "Amazing Grace"? Well, then you've heard a ballad. And now, having read "'Hope' is the thing with feathers," you've read another one.
You see, this poem essentially follows the regular ballad rhythm, which means that, for every stanza, the first and third lines are written in a pattern called "iambic tetrameter," while the second and fourth lines are written in "iambic trimeter."
Stop Googling, guys—we're here to translate. You see, an iamb is a two-syllable pair in which the first syllable is unstressed, but the second syllable is stressed. It makes a daDUM sound, like "allow." When you have four of those iambs in a single line, then you get iambic tetrameter (tetra- means four). Check it out:
And sings the tune without the words – (3)
Do you hear that daDUM, daDUM, daDUM, daDUM pattern? That's the sound of iambic pentameter at work, and it's present in the first and third line of nearly every stanza in the poem. Let's take a look at that very first line:
"Hope" is the thing with feathers –
Yeah, that one is pretty far from the iambic tetrameter mark. Maybe Dickinson was just getting warmed up? Or maybe something more is going on there. We'll say more about this exception in two shakes of a lamb's tail. For now, though, let's look at what iambic trimeter sounds like:
And never stops - at all – (4)
Now, if iambic tetrameter is four iambs in a line, then iambic trimeter is—wait for it—three. Tri- means three—just go count the horns on a triceratops if you want more proof. Every even-numbered line in this poem uses that pattern, for a rhythmic effect of daDUM, daDUM, daDUM.
In addition to this metrical pattern, ballads are known for their pretty regular rhyme scheme: ABCB, where each letter stands for that line's end rhyme. Here's an example of how that plays out in this poem's form:
"Hope" is the thing with feathers - A
That perches in the soul - B
And sings the tune without the words - C
And never stops - at all – (1-4) B
Okay, okay—so "soul" and "all" aren't an exact rhyme. They make what's called a near rhyme or slant rhyme. So, in the first stanza the expected ballad rhyme pattern is slightly off. Hey—wait a minute. It's slightly off in the second stanza too (ABAB). And the same goes for the third stanza (ABBB).
So just what is Dickinson up to here? And why does her first line stick out like a sore thumb from the rest of her metrical patterns? And while we're at it, what's up with all these dashes everywhere? Was her typewriter broken or what?
These are all good questions—except for the last one, since Dickinson wrote all her poems by hand. And we think we can offer up one answer for all three. (How's that for efficiency?)
You see, Dickinson was both a person and a poet who did her own thing. She was not into following conventions when it came to religion, society, and certainly poetry. All those dashes, which were taken out by her original editors, are there to interrupt the regular flow that a ballad form would achieve. A reader can't just float through her poems in a singsong fashion. The dashes act as pauses, breaking up the flow of lines—especially 4, 11, and 12—and forcing the reader to take stock as they go.
In a sense, Dickinson's playing a big game of "Red Light, Green Light" with her readers. Those dashes, as well as her deviations in the rhyme scheme and meter, are a way of her calling "red light," stopping us and encouraging us to reflect a bit. Then it's time to move on: "green light." Without those awkward breaks, we might run too quickly through this poem, and then we'd miss out on just what an awesome creature the hope-bird can be.