Emily Dickinson is one of the first poets I can remember admiring. I’m not sure whether it was her near rhymes, her life story, her often understated but amazing imagery, or the fact that she really wasn’t appreciated as a poetic genius until after her death: whatever it is that drew me to her poetry, I’m hooked. “A Bird Came Down the Walk” is her best-known poem that contains a bird and includes images that truly capture the character of birds in her usual, simple way. I always picture the bird in this poem as an American Robin, simply because of the behavior described, but it could be any of a host of avians.
A Bird came down the Walk —
He did not know I saw —
He bit an Angleworm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw,
And then he drank a Dew
From a convenient Grass —
And then hopped sidewise to the Wall
To let a Beetle pass —
He glanced with rapid eyes
That hurried all abroad —
They looked like frightened Beads, I thought —
He stirred his Velvet Head
Like one in danger, Cautious,
I offered him a Crumb
And he unrolled his feathers
And rowed him softer home —
Than Oars divide the Ocean,
Too silver for a seam —
Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon
Leap, plashless as they swim.
The first two stanzas of the poem are a simple description of the bird, not knowing it is being watched by the poet, being a bird. The third stanza is where Dickinson really hits her stride. The bird’s “rapid eyes…hurried all abroad” is a darn good description of a bird on alert for predators. And while comparing the bird’s eyes to “Beads” seems to make the bird less alive the fact that the beads are “frightened,” while perhaps overly humanizing the bird, captures the look I’ve seen birds have when they noticed my presence (though the non-poetical would probably use “wary” as the adjective). The bird must have been made wary by Dickinson coming forward to offer it a crumb.
The bird, of course, refuses the crumb and “unrolled his feathers / And rowed him softer home.” Anyone who has seen crows fly across the sky can appreciate comparing birds’ wings in flight to oars: in fact the simplest way I was taught to remember what a crow looks like in flight is “Row, row, row, your crow.”
But Dickinson takes the analogy of the bird’s wings rowing through the air a step further and tiptoes towards whimsy when she extends her metaphor to “Butterflies, off Banks of Noon, / Leap, plashless, as they swim.” The sky becomes the sea and butterflies, at high noon, leap into the air without a splash, a delightful image to this poetry-aficionado and a wonderful way to end the poem.
If you like this poem by Emily Dickinson, and I hope you do, why not explore more of her work?
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