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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

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

The text I use for the commentaries

The text I use for the commentaries

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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