Monday, October 31, 2016

"A Bird came down the Walk" by Emily Dickinson, a review

A Bird came down the Walk (328) - by Emily Dickinson, 1830 - 1886

    A bird came down the walk:
    He did not know I saw;
    He bit an angle-worm 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.

“A Bird came down the Walk” was first published in 1891 in the second posthumous collection of Dickinson's poems. The poem is composed in iambic trimeter with occasional four-syllable lines. The rhyme scheme is a loose ABCB and the meter is broken up at intervals with long dashes indicating short pauses. This poem is a classic example of Dickinson’s exceptional powers of observation and description. The ‘voice’ of the poem describes seeing a bird coming down a walk, eating a warm and drinking some dew drops. The bird, once it is full, “hopped sidewise to the wall/ To let a beetle pass.” Unlike human beings creatures of nature do not kill for fun. “He glanced with rapid eyes/ That hurried all abroad” – the bird is observant of the world around it; it is in tune with it. The poet interprets the bird’s observant carefulness as fear. It is just a reflection of human feelings on a creature the voice has no connection with. 

There is a sense of voyeurism in the voice’s description of the bird’s activities; the voice is observing the bird and had the bird known that it was being observed it would not have allowed the voice to catch it unawares at such a vulnerable moment. The voice seems to feel privileged to have seen what she has seen and makes it an offering. Human beings base their relationships on mutual give-and-take. In addition, this particular offering may have been made with the intention of taming this representative of nature. But what the voice offers is a crumb. We are told in the third line of the first stanza that the bird had bitten “an angle-worm in halves/ And ate the fellow, raw.” Firstly, there is such power and independence in this bird that finds its own food and consumes it with such gusto. Such creature would surely not accept a mere crumb – literal or figurative – as an offering from anyone. Secondly, even after seeing the bird in action the voice seems to not have drawn the conclusion that it was most probably a carnivore. Moreover, the cautious way the bird moves about should have told the voice that the bird, even if it were an omnivore, would not have accepted an offering from an unknown entity. It takes a long time to build a relationship that is close enough for a wild animal to accept food from a human hand. We have hunted, poisoned, and tortured animals to such an extent, animals have learnt to be wary of us. This single act of the voice and the bird’s reaction to it show how alienated we have become physically, emotionally, and spiritually from the natural world and how much we crave for a closer connection with it. In that desire lays Dickinson’s link with the Romantic School of Poetry. 

There is a sense of affronted majesty in the way the bird rejects the human offering and flies away: “And he unrolled his feathers/ And rowed him softer home.” In comparison to the bird's terrestrial movements and the movements of the cautious voice, there is such grace and harmony in the flight of the bird.

The bird flies in the sky like someone rowing in the water, but its movements are gentler than that with which “Oars divide the ocean” or butterflies leap “off Banks of Noon.” By using two comparisons to illustrate the bird's flight the poet evokes the fluidity with which the bird moves through the air. 

·         According to Helen Vendler this poem attest to Dickinson's "cool eye, her unsparing factuality, her startling similes and metaphors, her psychological observations of herself and others, her capacity for showing herself mistaken, and her exquisite relish of natural beauty."

·         According to Harold Bloom the bird displays a "complex mix of qualities: ferocity, fastidiousness, courtesy, fear, and grace." He further notes that the description of the bird's flight is that seen by the poet’s soul rather than her "finite eyes."

·         Dr. Chuck Taylor states that the naturalistic description of a bird is also symbolic. According to him, the description of the bird’s flight suggests the ease with which a person’s soul reaches heaven.

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