The speaker describes hope as a bird (“the thing with feathers”) that perches in the soul. There, it sings wordlessly and without pause. The song of hope sounds sweetest “in the Gale,” and it would require a terrifying storm to ever “abash the little Bird / That kept so many warm.” The speaker says that she has heard the bird of hope “in the chillest land— / And on the strangest Sea—”, but never, no matter how extreme the conditions, did it ever ask for a single crumb from her.
Like almost all of Dickinson’s poems, “ ‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers—...” takes the form of an iambic trimeter that often expands to include a fourth stress at the end of the line (as in “And sings the tune without the words—”). Like almost all of her poems, it modifies and breaks up the rhythmic flow with long dashes indicating breaks and pauses (“And never stops—at all—”). The stanzas, as in most of Dickinson’s lyrics, rhyme loosely in an ABCB scheme, though in this poem there are some incidental carryover rhymes: “words” in line three of the first stanza rhymes with “heard” and “Bird” in the second; “Extremity” rhymes with “Sea” and “Me” in the third stanza, thus, technically conforming to an ABBB rhyme scheme.
This simple, metaphorical description of hope as a bird singing in the soul is another example of Dickinson’s homiletic style, derived from Psalms and religious hymns. Dickinson introduces her metaphor in the first two lines (“ ‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers— / That perches in the soul—”), then develops it throughout the poem by telling what the bird does (sing), how it reacts to hardship (it is unabashed in the storm), where it can be found (everywhere, from “chillest land” to “strangest Sea”), and what it asks for itself (nothing, not even a single crumb). Though written after “Success is counted sweetest,” this is still an early poem for Dickinson, and neither her language nor her themes here are as complicated and explosive as they would become in her more mature work from the mid-1860s. Still, we find a few of the verbal shocks that so characterize Dickinson’s mature style: the use of “abash,” for instance, to describe the storm’s potential effect on the bird, wrenches the reader back to the reality behind the pretty metaphor; while a singing bird cannot exactly be “abashed,” the word describes the effect of the storm—or a more general hardship—upon the speaker’s hopes.