I love Emily Dickinson’s poetry. I recently went to a museum exhibit dedicated to her and fell in love again with one of her poems, which I’ll dissect below:
Critics of Emily Dickinson’s poem number 328, commonly titled “A Bird Came Down the Walk,” have several different interpretations of the poem. Most critics believe that the poem is a “conventional symbolic account of Christian encounter within the world of nature…” (Budick 218). Although several critics take a religious approach to the poem, I disagree with them. I believe that “A Bird Came Down the Walk” is about mankind’s innate fear of others who are larger/smaller than they are. I also think that the poem explains man’s reaction to this fear. The bird in poem number 328 actually represents all of mankind. When the bird is confronted with its fear, it flies away. A (wo)man is as guilty as the bird when (s)he is running away from his/her fears. When we are scared or frightened, we often run away instead of standing up to face our fears.
The first stanza of Emily Dickinson’s poem shows a bird doing what it normally does all day long: “A Bird came down the walk / He did not know I saw / He bit an Angleworm in halves / And ate the fellow raw.” However, there is a deeper meaning in this stanza than the idea of a bird simply eating a raw worm. According to Jonnie G. Guerra, “the speaker’s choice of verbs seems to express a desire to anthropomorphize the bird” (Guerra 29). By giving the bird human-like qualities, the narrator invites the readers to compare the bird’s actions to mankind’s actions. The man is actually a human being who is eating his lunch or dinner. Since the bird does not know that the reader sees him eating a worm, the bird is perfectly at peace going about his daily business. Humans are identical to the bird in this sense. We follow our daily routines of eating, drinking, sleeping, shopping, and working; yet, we rarely realize that someone may be watching our every move. All throughout the day, parents watch their children to insure their safety, teachers monitor their students’ progress in order to help them do well, and bosses keep a close watch on their employees to see if they are doing the work that they were hired to do. There is always a pair of eyes beating down on us to scrutinize our every action, just like the narrator scrutinizes the bird’s actions. Through the bird, who is unaware of the man watching him, the narrator shows that no one is ever completely alone. The bird may be in danger, and it feels as though someone or something is approaching it.
The second stanza continues with the anthropomorphization of the bird: “And then he drank a Dew / From a convenient Grass / And then hopped sideways to the Wall / To let a Beetle pass.” The reader sees the resemblance of the bird to a human in this stanza when the bird drinks a dew because “grass” suggests an echo-pun on glass (Guerra 29). However, this stanza also sets up a situation that shows the goodness of humankind. Charles R. Metzger “playfully suggests a fancifully anthropomorphic sense of genteel deportment in the bird’s letting a “Beetle pass” (Metzger 22). Here, the narrator shows that the bird is kind enough to step out of the way for the beetle, a creature smaller than the bird, to pass by. Continuing with the theory that the bird is actually a human, readers then see how we humans often try to be accommodating to others. When others aren’t as capable of doing something on their own, man will often go out of his/her way to make it more convenient for them. When we are in the way of others’ goals, we try to get out of their way if at all possible. With its human-like qualities, the bird follows the “Golden Rule” just as man does. Since we are never alone in the world, we must work to make friends. Perhaps, the bird is trying to befriend the beetle. It is unlikely, but still, the bird is friendly by moving out of the beetle’s way. However, the bird’s friendliness isn’t enough to keep the bird calm when the stranger/narrator advances toward it.
As a result, the third stanza shows a change in the bird’s composure: “He glanced with rapid eyes / That hurried all around / They looked like frightened Beads, I thought / He stirred his Velvet Head.” When the bird stepped to the side, he realized that the narrator was watching him. He wasn’t alone at all. Fear starts to enter into the bird’s blood, making him look for the nearest escape route. The bird is unsure of the narrator, and what his/her intentions are. The narrator might be there to cause harm, or the narrator could be there to express kindness as the bird did for the beetle. Folk wisdom has always said that the eyes are the windows to one’s soul. When the bird’s eyes glance all around, the fear is evident; only in a case of extreme fright would the bird’s eyes become beady and glassy (Andersen 119). At this point in the poem, the narrator is physically close to the bird. While the bird is afraid of the man who is close to him, we humans are afraid of the people closest to us. The people who know us best and are closest to us have the power to hurt us the most. We are so unaware of other’s eyes beating down us at times that we become victims quite easily. We may be accommodating to a point, but we should never be accommodating to the point that we lose our focus and our direction. We need to hold back from others so that we maintain some order in our lives. Fear cannot take control of us. When it does, we must get away from it somehow, just as the bird does.
The fourth stanza of the poem shows the bird reacting to the narrator’s approach: “Like one in danger, cautious, / I offered him a Crumb / And he unrolled his feathers / And rowed him softer home.” Now, the narrator approaches the bird and offers to feed him, but the bird is frightened and flies away. The bird is quite small in comparison to the narrator. The narrator’s size is what scares the bird away. Charles R. Anderson notes that Dickinson “keeps the whole garden world reduced to the bird’s size. The [narrator] is left towering above and outside, having no magical elixir like Alice in Wonderland to shrink her down to a level where communication is possible” (Anderson 118). Jerome Loving agrees by pointing out that “if there is any suggestion of danger, it comes when the human narrator offers the bird a crumb. The truth is that nature is a nice place, a pastoral scene until man blunders on stage with the full weight of his past and future” (Loving 56). We humans have the same innate fear as birds when we face someone who is larger than we are. If someone is higher up on the corporate ladder than us, we are constantly afraid that he or she will fire us. Students have the fear of teachers failing them just as the bird feels the human will hurt him. Children feel afraid of their parents punishing them at times also. Everywhere we turn, there is someone who is stronger or more important than we are. We will always feel as though others are going to do something to hurt us; therefore, we need to escape this fear by running away like the bird does. If one looks at it another way, the bird could also be afraid of the entire world.
Even though the beetle is smaller than the bird is, the bird might still be afraid. It is common knowledge that elephants are often afraid of mice, which are hundreds of times smaller than elephants are. Perhaps the bird’s nerves are on edge, and he is afraid of anything that makes a slight, sudden move. The beetle could cause harm too. Humans are often afraid of spiders and bees, which are quite small in comparison to man. Nevertheless, the bird runs away just as man does when confronted with a situation he fears.
The fifth stanza shows that the bird flies away softly and quickly: “Than Oars divide the Ocean / Too silver for a seam / Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon / Leap, plashless as they swim.” The bird knows that it is in danger and must leave as quickly as possible. Also, the bird wants to leave quietly, in the hopes that the narrator doesn’t realize that the bird is leaving. We humans also try to leave swiftly and quietly. We know when we have been defeated, and we try to leave with our tail between our legs. We are ashamed and upset that someone has hurt us or tried to hurt us, so we escape. Running or flying away may not be the best way to handle the situation, but that is all that we know how to do. Man is accustomed to flee a situation rather than to confront it. Therefore, the bird, who represents man, flees too.
According to Anderson, “The dangers as well as the beauty represented by nature at large… are here concentrated in a single bird that exhibits a complex mix of qualities: ferocity, fastidiousness, courtesy, fear, and grace” (Anderson 221). The bird in Emily Dickinson’s poem “A Bird Came Down the Walk” can be representative of humans, since humans have the qualities such as fear, courtesy, and grace in their personality. Dickinson’s poem comments on man’s innate fear of others. We humans are always being watched and when we realize how close someone is to us, we need to run for fear that (s)he will hurt us. Our fleeing is done with grace and courtesy. It is a reaction that all humans have at one point or another. Dickinson’s poem shows the readers this fear and the results of the fear on mankind.
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