Emily Dickinson's "I have a Bird in spring"

Updated on April 13, 2018
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After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Sketch of Emily Dickinson

Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "I have a Bird in spring"

The speaker in Dickinson's "I have a Bird in spring" is offering another Dickinson riddle. She never reveals the specific identity of this strange bird that can fly away from her and return bringing her new melodies from the beyond the sea. This metaphoric bird that flies beyond a metaphoric sea has the delicious ability to calm the doubts and fears of the speaker. That a mere bird could possess such a seemingly magic power renders this Dickinson riddle one of her most profound and most captivating.

I have a Bird in spring

I have a Bird in spring
Which for myself doth sing —
The spring decoys.
And as the summer nears —
And as the Rose appears,
Robin is gone.

Yet do I not repine
Knowing that Bird of mine
Though flown —
Learneth beyond the sea
Melody new for me
And will return.

Fast in safer hand
Held in a truer Land
Are mine —
And though they now depart,
Tell I my doubting heart
They're thine.

In a serener Bright,
In a more golden light
I see
Each little doubt and fear,
Each little discord here
Removed.

Then will I not repine,
Knowing that Bird of mine
Though flown
Shall in distant tree
Bright melody for me
Return.

Reading of "I have a Bird in spring"

Emily Dickinson

Source

Commentary

Qualifying as a riddle, Emily Dickinson's "I have a Bird in spring," offers a profound statement about the speaker's ability to see beyond the Earth level of physical reality.

First Stanza: A Strange Bird

I have a Bird in spring
Which for myself doth sing —
The spring decoys.
And as the summer nears —
And as the Rose appears,
Robin is gone.

The speaker begins with a fairly straightforward statement that becomes curiouser and curiouser as she proceeds. She reports that she has "a Bird in spring." But that "Bird" sings only for her. This claim is curious because one would think that birds sing for everyone or for no one but themselves and perhaps other birds. Even if she is composing a ditty about a pet bird in a cage, that bird would not likely sing only to the pet-companion. As Paul Laurence Dunbar's speaker has asserted in his poem "Sympathy," he "knows why the caged bird sings," and it does not sing for the one who caged it.

Thus the puzzle in on: Why is this "Bird" singing only for the possessor? The speaker then asserts that as spring wears on it lures her away from her "Bird" and as she moves into summer she is attracted by "the Rose" and then her "Bird," whom she now names "Robin" has vanished.

The first stanza leaves the reader/listener wondering about this curious situation: a strange bird belonging to a human being just up and vanishes as spring and its lushness has captured this human's attention and as the roses begin to bloom in summer.

Second Stanza: Not a "bird" — but a "Bird"

Yet do I not repine
Knowing that Bird of mine
Though flown —
Learneth beyond the sea
Melody new for me
And will return.

The speaker then offers another curious statement. She reveals that she does not fret over the bird's disappearance. She knows that her "Bird" has simply wended its way "beyond the sea" where it will gather new melodies, and then it will return to her.

Again, an even more curious situation! This strange bird has gone but its owner knows it will come back. What bird can be recognized again by a human being out of the thousands of chirping birds that appear over the landscape and in the trees during any season?

The speaker seems to have made a ridiculous claim or perhaps that "Bird" that she owns is not a bird but is truly a "Bird," that is, a metaphorical bird must now be considered, if one is to take this discourse seriously. But what is a metaphorical bird? What could the speaker be calling a "Bird" that is not a physical bird?

Third Stanza: Divine Creator as Muse

Fast in safer hand
Held in a truer Land
Are mine —
And though they now depart,
Tell I my doubting heart
They're thine.

The speaker now begins to reveal that this "Bird" is her Muse, that is, her soul qualities that allow her to create this astonishing other "sky," the amazingly wonderful "garden" of verse in which she can pour her time, her effort, and her love.

This "Bird" allows her to understand that she and her talent are secure in the hands of their Creator. They are "Held in a truer Land"—a cosmic place that is more real because immortal and eternal than this place called Earth. They, this bundle of joy including her mind, her writing ability, and her love of beauty and art, this bundle she is now calling a "Bird" is surrounded and held "fast in safer hand." And that Hand belongs to God, the Divine Belovèd, the Blessèd Creator of all things, and the Being of which the human soul is a spark.

The speaker's Divine Creator is guarding and guiding her in mysterious ways, and she knows that she is taking that guidance on faith because she still possesses a "doubting heart." But she tells that heart filled with doubt that those qualities, metaphorically rendered in that "Bird," are hers, despite the fact that they seem at times to recede from her vision and utility.

Like the Shakespearean sonneteer, who complains at times during dry spells when his composing goes more sluggishly than he would like, this speaker admits that spring and summer events distract her, and her "Bird" seems to fly off. But she comforts herself with the knowledge that her abilities are simply off incubating somewhere, they are off simply learning new melodies for her. And most importantly, they will return, she does not doubt that return. They will return because "They are thine." They belong to her.

Fourth Stanza: Seeing Through Mystic Eyes

In a serener Bright,
In a more golden light
I see
Each little doubt and fear,
Each little discord here
Removed.

The speaker continues to impart the details that allow her to realize that her "Bird" will return. In times of clearer sight that she experiences even through the absence of her "Bird," she envisions in a "more golden light" that all her doubts, fears, and discords "here" are removed. While she remains upon this Earth, she knows that those fears will continue to attack her, but because of her secure knowledge of her divine soul, which is a spark of the Divine Soul Creator, she can realize that those tribulations caused by the dualities of Earth life are temporary.

The speaker's ability to see through mystic eyes in this "serener Bright" and "golden light" allows her to quiet that doubting heart with the great news that Eternity and Immortality are hers. Her ability to continue to create her own "sky" and "garden" is absolute, and the knowledge quiets her fears and doubts.

Fifth Stanza: The Virtue of Patience

Fast in safer hand
Held in a truer Land
Are mine —
And though they now depart,
Tell I my doubting heart
They're thine.

Thus, the speaker can aver that she will not fret and complain because her "Bird" is away. She knows it will return to her with bright melodies. Though that "Bird of mine" has a penchant for seemingly vanishing, she knows it is simply her own consciousness being attracted to other aspects of "spring" and "summer" that allow that "Bird" to recede into the dark recesses of her mind.

The speaker finds great enjoyment in fashioning her little dramas, and again like the Shakespearean sonneteer, she can compose her dramas even as she seems to be experiencing a blocked flow of words.

Writing teachers and rhetoricians explain the concept of incubation as a stage of the writing process, a period of time when the writer seems not to be thinking directly about his writing project but to be allowing his thoughts to quietly proliferate, even as he goes about performing other activities. Dickinson and the Shakespearean sonneteer, as creative writers, were able to use that concept for creating their little dramas, even as they, no doubt, chafed under their seeming inability to create.

Dickinson's mystic sight afforded her an even stronger talent for delivering her mind to performance because she knew her soul to be immortal, and she was able to see mystically beyond the physical, Earth-level of being. The Shakespeare writer's faith was strong enough to render him nearly as capable as Dickinson, as his "Writer/Muse" sonnet sequence testifies.

Dickinson's Titles


Emily Dickinson did not provide titles to her 1,775 poems; therefore, each poem's first line becomes the title. According to the MLA Style Manuel:

"When the first line of a poem serves as the title of the poem, reproduce the line exactly as it appears in the text."

APA does not address this issue.

Life Sketch of Emily Dickinson

Emily Dickinson remains one of the most fascinating and widely researched poets in America. Much speculation abounds regarding some of the most known facts about her. For example, after the age of seventeen, she remained fairly cloistered in her father's home, rarely moving from the house beyond the front gate. Yet she produced some of the wisest, deepest poetry ever created anywhere at any time.

Regardless of Emily's personal reasons for living nun-like, readers have found much to admire, enjoy, and appreciate about her poems. Though they often baffle upon first encounter, they reward readers mightily who stay with each poem and dig out the nuggets of golden wisdom.

New England Family

Emily Elizabeth Dickinson was born December 10, 1830, in Amherst, MA, to Edward Dickinson and Emily Norcross Dickinson. Emily was the second child of three: Austin, her older brother who was born April 16, 1829, and Lavinia, her younger sister, born February 28, 1833. Emily died on May 15, 1886.

Emily's New England heritage was strong and included her paternal grandfather, Samuel Dickinson, who was one of the founders of Amherst College. Emily's father was a lawyer and also was elected to and served one term in the state legislature (1837-1839); later between 1852 and 1855, he served one term in the U.S. House of Representative as a representative of Massachusetts.

Education

Emily attended the primary grades in a one room school until being sent to Amherst Academy, which became Amherst College. The school took pride in offering college level course in the sciences from astronomy to zoology. Emily enjoyed school, and her poems testify to the skill with which she mastered her academic lessons.

After her seven year stint at Amherst Academy, Emily then entered Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in the fall of 1847. Emily remained at the seminary for only one year. Much speculation has been offered regarding Emily's early departure from formal education, from the atmosphere of religiosity of the school to the simple fact that the seminary offered nothing new for the sharp minded Emily to learn. She seemed quite content to leave in order to stay home. Likely her reclusiveness was beginning, and she felt the need to control her own learning and schedule her own life activities.

As a stay-at-home daughter in 19th century New England, Emily was expected to take on her share of domestic duties, including housework, likely to help prepare said daughters for handling their own homes after marriage. Possibly, Emily was convinced that her life would not be the traditional one of wife, mother, and householder; she has even stated as much: God keep me from what they call households.

In this householder-in-training position, Emily especially disdained the role a host to the many guests that her father's community service required of his family. She found such entertaining mind-boggling, and all that time spent with others meant less time for her own creative efforts. By this time in her life, Emily was discovering the joy of soul-discovery through her art.

Although many have speculated that her dismissal of the current religious metaphor landed her in the atheist camp, Emily's poems testify to a deep spiritual awareness that far exceeds the religious rhetoric of the period. In fact, Emily was likely discovering that her intuition about all things spiritual demonstrated an intellect that far exceeded any of her family's and compatriots' intelligence. Her focus became her poetry—her main interest in life.

Publication

Very few of Emily's poems appeared in print during her lifetime. And it was only after her death the her sister Vinnie discovered the bundles of poems, called fascicles, in Emily's room. A total of 1775 individual poems have made their way to publication. The first publicans of her works to appear, gathered and edited by Mabel Loomis Todd, a supposed paramour of Emily's brother, and the editor Thomas Wentworth Higginson had been altered to the point of changing the meanings of her poems. The regularization of her technical achievements with grammar and punctuation obliterated the high achievement that the poet had so creatively accomplished.

Readers can thank Thomas H. Johnson, who in the mid 1950s went to work at restoring Emily's poems to their, at least near, original. His doing so restored her many dashes, spacings, and other grammar/mechanical features that earlier editors had "corrected" for the poet—corrections that ultimately resulted in obliteration of the poetic achievement reached by Emily's mystically brilliant talent.

Thomas H. Johnson's The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson

The text I use for commentaries
The text I use for commentaries | Source

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    © 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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