Soul Comforter by Josh Mayo


Soul Comforter

Josh Mayo on Emily Dickinson & the Source of Our Hope

Hope is a tenacious creature. Like the poppy that bursts from the curbside, like the finch that hangs its nest in the glacier, hope is an extremophile. The weight of pedestrian life does not crush it; the chill of the remote does not freeze it. But how? And why? What can explain the human soul's insistent and persistent hope against titanic odds? That conundrum is the subject of Emily Dickinson's poem #314:

"Hope" is the thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard –
And sore must be the storm –
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm –

I've heard it in the chillest land –
And on the strangest Sea –
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

What people are saying about Touchstone:

In lyric poetry, I know of no better psychology of human optimism than this one. Dickinson captures hope's strangeness, the paradox of the birdsong that rings "sweetest – in the Gale." Hope is an enigma: it "perches in the soul," and many take comfort from its music, but do not know why. Hope is a "thing with feathers," an unclassified bird, beautiful and elusive, hidden in those green folds of the soul's private jungle. It hums the melody of a forgotten rhyme, a song we used to know, a "tune without the words." What is the text of this ancient, abiding song of hope? What is this mysterious music of the inner country?

Two Popular Hopes

Our culture has its own music. There are two popular hopes, two songs of optimism, sung by our contemporaries: what we might call the Song of Progress and the Song of Karma. The first pertains to collective hope, the second to that of individuals. It is better not to think of these songs as formally systematized philosophies, but as popular cultural narratives, stories we tell ourselves about ourselves and our standing in the world—songs that, I think, fail to give us real hope.

In its crudest form, the Song of Progress is the belief that, through social and technological evolution, everything is getting better and better. Upward we go on the dialectical staircase. Higher and higher on the Hegelian spiral. Of course, there is nothing wrong with progress per se, but when social evolvement becomes a telos or an end in itself, notes go out of concert. Cacophony ensues. As Richard Weaver once observed, the "notion of infinite progress" is more than metaphysical jabberwocky; it is actually a destructive idea:

If the goal recedes forever, one point is no nearer it than the last. All that we can do is compare meaninglessly yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Aristotle noted that the concept of infinity makes impossible the idea of the good. If a series of things is hierarchically ordered, it is conditioned from top to bottom and so cannot be infinite. If it is infinite, it cannot be conditioned from top to bottom, and there is no higher and lower.

Not only is infinite progress nonsensical, it makes impossible any vision of cosmic order. Without a telos, there can be no hierarchy. And what kind of hope can one have in a world like that, a world without an "idea of the good"? Even the wintry pessimism of the Norse myths is preferable to this. Even Ragnarök is better than a cosmos without coordinates.

Josh Mayo teaches in the English Department and Writing Program at Grove City College and has written for other publications of Christian thought, including First Things. He and his wife Bethany have two sons, Ezra Wallis and Silas Andrew, and attend Grace Anglican Church in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania.

• Not a subscriber or wish to renew your subscription? Subscribe to Touchstone today for full online access. Over 30 years of publishing!

personal subscriptions

Purchase Print &
Online Subscription

Get six issues (one year) of Touchstone PLUS full online access including pdf downloads for only $39.95. That's only $3.34 per month!

RENEW your print/online

Online Subscription

Get a one-year full-access subscription to the Touchstone online archives including pdf downloads for only $19.95. That's only $1.66 per month!

RENEW your online subscription

gift subscriptions

GIVE Print &
Online Subscription

Give six issues (one year) of Touchstone PLUS full online access including pdf downloads for the reduced rate of $29.95. That's only $2.50 per month!

RENEW your gift subscription

Transactions will be processed on a secure server.

bulk subscriptions

Order Touchstone subscriptions in bulk and save $10 per sub! Each subscription includes 6 issues of Touchstone plus full online access to—including archives, videos, and pdf downloads of recent issues for only $29.95 each! Great for churches or study groups.

kindle subscription

OR get a subscription to Touchstone to read on your Kindle for only $1.99 per month! (This option is KINDLE ONLY and does not include either print or online.)

Your subscription goes a long way to ensure that Touchstone is able to continue its mission of publishing quality Christian articles and commentary.

more on literature from the online archives

30.4—July/Aug 2017

Soul Comforter

on Emily Dickinson & the Source of Our Hope by Josh Mayo

30.2—March/April 2017

Rescuing Cervantes

on Reading Don Quixote in Its Original Christian Context by Luis Cortest

35.6—Nov/Dec 2022

To Is or Not To Is

on E-Prime by J. Douglas Johnson

more from the online archives

30.1—Jan/Feb 2017

Family Matters

Domestic Altars & Godly Offspring by Allan C. Carlson

18.3—April 2005

Book Worms

on Textbook Publishers Who Lie About Islam by Terry Graves

20.2—March 2007

Simply Lewis

Reflections on a Master Apologist After 60 Years by N. T. Wright

calling all readers

Please Donate

"There are magazines worth reading but few worth saving . . . Touchstone is just such a magazine."
—Alice von Hildebrand

"Here we do not concede one square millimeter of territory to falsehood, folly, contemporary sentimentality, or fashion. We speak the truth, and let God be our judge. . . . Touchstone is the one committedly Christian conservative journal."
—Anthony Esolen, Touchstone senior editor

Support Touchstone