A Bird came down the walk —

by Elouise

Here’s another childlike poem from Emily Dickinson that’s filled with adult insight. My comments follow.

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.

c. 1862

Emily Dickinson Poems, Edited by Brenda Hillman
Shambhala Pocket Classics, Shambhala 1995

Here’s how I see this poem today—informed by my own observations, and the article I mentioned earlier about possible trauma in Emily’s life. The author saw multiple signs of this, especially in poems written around 1862 and beyond. Emily was about 32 years old when she wrote this poem.

  • Despite the childlike language and scenario, Emily’s poem conveys a sense of mystery. The Bird hopping down the walk is being watched and doesn’t know it. Might it have done something else if it had known someone was looking?
  • Though the Bird does something natural, the unnoticed onlooker doesn’t simply say the Bird ate a worm. Each action gets a full line in this short poem, perhaps to emphasize the suddenness and horror of the unsuspecting Angleworm’s demise. Is it important to identify the Angleworm? Or are they just a dime a dozen or more. Dispensable.
  • Stanza 2 seems to say life goes on as normal for the Bird. Still, it isn’t clear why this Bird hopped aside to let a Beetle pass, since birds regularly eat beetles.
  • Beginning with Stanza 3, Emily seems to know this Bird. She sees a vigilant, even frightened Bird whose eyes and head can’t rest. Constantly scanning for what?
  • The opening line of Stanza 4 is ambiguous. Who is in constant danger, Cautious? Perhaps both the Bird and Emily. Emily cautiously offers the Bird a crumb. Is this all she has to offer? In other poems she describes herself as starved. Yet we already know this Bird isn’t starving. Instead of taking the crumb from her hand, it spreads its wings like oars and heads for home.
  • Stanza 5 almost painfully highlights the ease and beauty with which the Bird and Butterflies, row softly and soar brightly above this ocean world in which vigilance is a constant companion.

I think Emily wishes she were a Bird or a Butterfly—beautiful in flight as she soars silently, through and above this ocean-like world of danger. Somewhere above the Banks along the seashore, making her way to a place called home.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 4 October 2017
Photo found at favim.com