In a world of literary geniuses such as Emerson, Whitman, Poe, and Longfellow, it is Emily Dickinson who is considered to be one of the greatest nineteenth century poets of all time – perhaps even the greatest. Her simple yet elegant use of the English language has captured the imaginations and hearts of innumerable readers for well over a hundred years. Within her writing career, Dickinson quite literally wrote thousands of poems on many different topics. Love and hate, life and death, hope and hopelessness – Dickinson explored all of these and more in her often-short poetic works. Though each poem is unique, she employed many of the same literary techniques throughout them all. Dickinson’s poems “Safe in Their Alabaster Chambers” and “‘Hope’ is the Thing with Feathers” are two poems worth studying. Both have quite a bit in common, and further examination of their language, structure, and meanings is worthwhile.
Perhaps the most obvious difference between the two poems is their contrasting themes. “Safe in Their Alabaster Chambers” is a dark poem. The subject of discussion is immediately obvious upon even the first reading; it is a poem about death. Oftentimes the meanings of poems can be difficult to decipher, but not this one. Each line is clear and works to enhance, layer upon layer, the coldness, the loneliness, inevitableness of death. The tone is one of hopelessness. These people in their “alabaster chambers” are forever out of reach of the regenerating, rejuvenating sunlight. Light, in fact, resides far away “In her Castle above them” (Meyer 934; line 8). The dead will never again experience the simple pleasures that their living brethren do – hearing the gentle buzz of a bumblebee, for example, or the trilling of a robin. However, life goes on, as this poem points out; life goes on, and the birds will continue to sing despite the fact that there are those who can no longer hear their songs.
Conversely, “‘Hope’ is the Thing with Feathers” is a poem about hope, not hopelessness. The poem is short, though it is longer than “Safe in Their Alabaster Chambers,” yet it is an example of how a great poet can breathe life into a single word. The words that Dickinson used were aptly chosen to express the emotions that she wanted to communicate. The feelings that one derives from reading this poem are of peace and warm tranquility. The image that one receives is of an enormous yet gentle creature whose wide, white and gray-feathered wings are a haven to those in need. This creature, hope, does more than comfort, however; it fortifies, it braces a person against even the roughest of storms.
Next, Dickinson’s use of language is crucial in an analysis of her poems. Through her word choice, the respective themes of death and life – of which hope is a very important part – in these poems are magnified. “Safe in Their Alabaster Chambers” is dark and unnerving with its language. The sense of finality that comes with death is embedded within the poem itself. The aspect that best shows this sense of irrevocability is the constant referral to light. The dead are “Untouched by morning/And untouched by noon” (Meyer 933; lines 2-3). The dead are forever in the cold, damp, dark earth, and have no hope of ever seeing the warm, bright sun again. This fact is driven home in the way in which light is given human characteristics. In “Safe in Their Alabaster Chambers,” light actually laughs at the deceased, like a person might, from its “castle” in the living world.
Hand in hand with the topic of word choices is the topic of how those words are used. Dickinson employed several well-known literary techniques in “Safe in Their Alabaster Chambers.” These techniques enhance the reading experience and make the impact of the poem that much greater. The above-mentioned section of the poem “Untouched by morning/And untouched by noon” is an example of incremental repetition, the repetition of almost exactly the same words for the purpose of dramatic effect. By repeating the word “untouched” twice, the finality and hopelessness of the dead are magnified.
The use of alliteration is also present. Alliteration is the combination of words that begin with the same consonant sound, such as the line “Babbles the Bee in a stolid Ear” (Meyer 934; line 9) and “Light laughs the breeze” (Meyer 933; line 7). Dickinson’s usage of this technique interjects an almost fun note into her otherwise dismal poem. Another technique that Dickinson employed is the art of imagery. Consider, for example, the line “Rafters of satin” (Meyer 933; line 5). These three words conjure up the perplexing image of high-set rafters nestled up in a ceiling that are actually made of smooth white satin – an oddly intriguing image.
The language in “‘Hope’ is the Thing with Feathers” is quite as effective, but with a different intent than that of “Safe in Their Alabaster Chambers.” Dickinson’s careful choice of words for this poem is obvious, for every word is rich with feeling and emotion. The idea that “Hope…perches on the soul” is a wonderful statement on how entwined hope is with a person’s being. The claws of hope’s great, feathered creature dig into a person’s soul, refusing to let go, offering a sense of permanence, of constancy. To further that sense of constancy, we are offered the following line: “And sore must be the storm/that could abash the little Bird” (Hollander 565; lines 6-7).
As in “Safe in Their Alabaster Chambers,” Dickinson utilizes the same literary techniques as personification, imagery, and also near-rhyme in “‘Hope’ is the Thing with Feathers.” All three are prevalent, actually. The very words “‘Hope’ is the Thing with Feathers” implies that hope is itself an actual living thing, and paves way for the extended metaphor to follow. The entire poem continues the notion that hope has human characteristics. Hope has a will of its own. Hope has its own strength. Hope sings. This metaphor is one that makes the reader think. Written the way it was, the reader can just imagine a great, winged falcon or other bird watching over a person in need.
Although the poem doesn’t utilize alliteration as often “Safe in Their Alabaster Chambers,” “Hope” does employ some other literary techniques. The most notable is the two instances of near rhyme. The first instance is in the second stanza, and the third instance is in the third stanza. While they are not quite as euphonious as full end-rhymes, these near rhymes – “And on the strangest Sea/Yet, never, in Extremity/It asked a crumb-of Me” – offered some sense of rhythm to the poem.
Finally, the structure of a poem – or lack thereof – is its foundation. “Safe in Their Alabaster Chambers” and “‘Hope’ is the Thing with Feathers” have very different structures. First of all, “Safe in Their Alabaster Chambers” has no set stanza structure. Composed of only two stanzas, the first stanza is six lines, and the second is five lines. The poem also has an irregular beat, meaning there is no conformity among the number of syllables in each line, nor is there a set beat measure such as iambic or didactic. The rhyme scheme is also abrupt, with very few end rhymes. While the lines “Sleep the meek members of the Resurrection” (Meyer 933; line 4) and “Roof of stone” (Meyer 933; line 6) are not a perfect rhyme, they are still a form of near rhyme that, actually, began its popularity in the middle of the nineteenth century (Wells 266). Even though this poem’s rather unorganized structure could be construed to symbolize the discordance and disruption that comes with death, that same lack of structure makes it somewhat difficult to read.
On the other hand, “‘Hope’ is the Thing with Feathers” has a more organized structure. The poem is composed of 3 quatrain stanzas. Each stanza follows the same form: the first and third lines each contain eight syllables, and the second and fourth lines each contain six syllables. The exception to this, however, is the first stanza, in which the first line is seven syllables, the second is six syllables, the third is eight syllables, and the fourth is again six syllables. It can be construed that this oddity in an otherwise rhythmic form is meant to enhance that very first line, and surprise the reader with its unusualness. The meter of the lines is iambic, meaning one stressed syllable is followed by one unstressed syllable, which in turn is followed by a stressed syllable, etc. This organization of stanzas, syllables, and meter are greatly beneficial to the reading process, although some difficulty remains with the reading of this poem.
In conclusion, since Emily Dickinson wrote both of the poems discussed, it is no surprise that there are similarities in their construction. These likenesses are mainly the utilization of such techniques as imagery, personification, and near rhymes. One must look closely to see these connections, however, especially when one is faced with more obvious dissimilarities. By reading through each poem and comparing the flow and rhythm of both, one can see that the differences in structure are quite noticeable; one is very choppy, uneven, and the other is much smoother. Finally, the most important difference between these two poems is the difference between their themes. In this regard, they are as different as night and day.
“Safe in Their Alabaster Chambers” is quite certainly about death, while “‘Hope’ is the Thing with Feathers” is clearly about life and the hope that one has in his or her life. Both poems are fascinating, and a joy to read. The unique way that Dickinson possessed of arranging mere words into thought-provoking, emotion-filled, and meaningful poetry is what makes her the greatest poet of the nineteenth century.