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.

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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.

Though more sensible as a doctrine, the Song of Karma is hardly more cheering. In the great moral economy of the universe, Karma promises that good deeds obtain good returns as investments receive dividends. Sow kindness; reap the rewards. Like the seeds of the opening lotus flower, the fruit of life emerges even as the bloom of dharma unfolds. This kind of thing might encourage us if human morality were not so bankrupt, but no honest survey of ourselves or the world provides any such hope for beatitude contingent on ethics. If anything, the principle of cosmic retribution is a cause for despair, yet its basic religion is propounded everywhere. The names change, but the principle pervades every sector of American culture—from the tech-temples of Silicon Valley to the country chapels of the Bible Belt.

The Missing Text

These songs are not the song of Dickinson's soul-bird. Though many are persuaded by their siren calls, Progress and Karma are themselves not solid enough, thick enough, as doctrine to explain the deep, abiding hope that pervades the inner corridor of the human soul, the holy suspicion that things ought to be okay, and really will be okay eventually. The hope of Dickinson's poem is more resonant and more mysterious. It represents a subterranean river of intuition, a life-giving stream beneath the fashions and fables of the workaday world.

We need a hope for the collective, but one with a founded teleology, a right view of the end of our striving. We need a promise for the individual, but one with an honest anthropology, a frankness about our existential need. So what is the chorus of good cheer intimated by the poet's "little bird"? What is the missing text?

I do not know what Dickinson herself would say (her faith is itself a clandestine animal), but I like to think of her "little bird" as the one called the Paraclete, the "Helper." I like to think of her soul-singer as the one who, in St. Paul's language, fills us with "all joy and peace in believing"—the wings of Pentecost, the "God of hope"—whose good word is a cosmic word, whose good promise is a social promise, whose warm assurance speaks to the individual human heart. Could it be that the Christian calls by name the hope that the soul knows must exist? Could it be that the Gospel is the song that the Christian sings, but the world only hums?

If so, we could leave behind Progress and Karma. Another song would keep us warmer—in the "chillest land," in the "strangest sea." • 

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.

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

24.1—January/February 2011

Secular Grendel

Ruminations on the Monstrous Envy of the Soul-Devouring State by Anthony Esolen

32.2—March/April 2019

The Problem of Pity

Misguided Mercy & Dante's Infernal Purgation by Joshua Hren

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