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Emily Dickinson's "A Bird came down the Walk"

Emily Dickinson's poems remain a vital part of my poet worldview. They dramatize the human spirit via deep attention to life's details.

Commemorative Stamp

Introduction and Text of "A Bird came down the Walk"

Emily Dickinson's "A Bird came down the Walk" (328 in Johnson) is one of her most anthologized poems. It consists of five quatrains, with a loose rime scheme wherein the second and fourth lines display either perfect (saw-raw) or slant (around-Head) rimes.

In the Thomas H. Johnson's Complete Poems, the version that most closely adheres to Dickinson's manuscript, the line is "That hurried all around." Subsequent editors have tried to improve the poet's rime by changing "around" to "abroad." The notion is that "abroad" is a closer rime to "head" than "around." But, as is usually the case, the poet's subtle meanings are lost with most editorial "corrections."

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

A Bird came down the Walk

A Bird came down the Walk—
He did not know I saw—
He bit an Angleworm 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 around—
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 recitation of "A Bird came down the Walk"

Commentary

This poem is one of Dickinson's many fun poems loaded with clever plays on words, making a keen observation that serves to remind the reader of images stored in memory.

First Quatrain: Human Eyes Spy a Bird

A Bird came down the Walk—
He did not know I saw—
He bit an Angleworm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw,

In the first quatrain, the speaker announces simply that, "A Bird came down the Walk." Then she describes what happened next after assuring readers that the bird did not know it was being watched by a human pair of eyes.

The bird grabs up a worm, slices him in two, and unceremoniously swallows the creature, not bothering to cook him. Dickinson likes to have some fun with her poems, and this one displays her sense of hilarity.

Second Quatrain: Clever Use of Grass

And then he drank a Dew
From a convenient Grass—
And then hopped sidewise to the Wall
To let a Beetle pass—

Then the speaker continues to tell the reader what happened next: the bird "drank a Dew / From a convenient Grass — / And then hopped sidewise to the Wall / To let a Beetle pass." Dickinson must have enjoyed the cleverness of saying that a bird drank a dew from a convenient grass.

The word "grass" reminds the reader of "glass" from which the human animal usually drinks, and that the bird took a sip of the dew off a piece of grass is perfectly natural. After the bird imbibes his drink, he politely steps aside to let another of nature's creature continue of his journey. The speaker portrays little acts of civility for the creature as she describes his antics.

Third Quatrain: Fidgeting Eyes

He glanced with rapid eyes
That hurried all around—
They looked like frightened Beads, I thought—
He stirred his Velvet Head

In the third quatrain, the speaker describes the bird's eyes. Such a detail makes one wonder just how close she was to the bird that she could report, "He glanced with rapid eyes / That hurried all around — / They looked like frightened Beads."

But somewhere in the reader's memory is the same sight, having observed a bird's rapid eye movement, but here the poet's dramatic portrayal gives the reader back that memory. It is absolutely correct, a perfectly accurate observation, that those little black eyes "looked like frightened Beads." And then the bird's head began to move: "He stirred his Velvet Head."

Fourth Quatrain: Feeding and Fear

Like one in danger, Cautious,
I offered him a Crumb
And he unrolled his feathers
And rowed him softer home—

The speaker knows why the bird suddenly appears to have frightened eyes and a moving head of one who is fearful because she is, in fact, quite close to the bird, close enough to try to feed him: "I offered him a Crumb," and after she does that, he does not stick around to enjoy that crumb, he takes off. As she dramatizes it, "he unrolled his feathers / And rowed him softer home."

Fifth Quatrain: Invisible Rowing

Than Oars divide the Ocean,
Too silver for a seam—
Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon
Leap, plashless as they swim.

In the fifth quatrain, the speaker begins her all-important description of the utter smoothness of the bird's flight. At the end of the fourth quatrain, she started a comparison, saying "he rowed him softer home," which she continues with "Than oars divide the Ocean." The bird's flight through the air is invisible, much softer than when one rows through water using oars.

His "rowing" was "Too silver for a seam." And not only was it softer and seamless compared to rowing a boat on water, it was even smoother than the flight of butterflies that jump into the rivers of "Noon" swimming and splashing about. The line "off Banks of Noon" must have brought another smile to poet's face as she splashed about in her own cleverness, putting down these immortal images to reawaken the sleeping memories in readers years and years hence.

Emily Dickinson

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.

Reclusiveness and Religion

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.

Emily's reclusiveness extended to her decision that she could keep the sabbath by staying home instead of attending church services. Her wonderful explication of the decision appears in her poem, "Some keep the Sabbath going to Church":

Some keep the Sabbath going to Church —
I keep it, staying at Home —
With a Bobolink for a Chorister —
And an Orchard, for a Dome —

Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice —
I just wear my Wings —
And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church,
Our little Sexton — sings.

God preaches, a noted Clergyman —
And the sermon is never long,
So instead of getting to Heaven, at last —
I'm going, all along.

Publication

Very few of Emily's poems appeared in print during her lifetime. And it was only after her death that 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 publications 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.

The text I use for the commentaries

The text I use for the commentaries

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes