“A Bird, came down the Walk–” (F359C, J328)

A Bird, came down the
Walk –
He did not know I saw –
He +bit  an Angle Worm        +shook
in halves
And ate the fellow, raw,

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

He glanced with rapid eyes,
That hurried all abroad –
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
Too silver for a seam,
Or Butterflies, off Banks
of Noon,
Leap, plashless as they

Link to EDA manuscript. Originally in Amherst Manuscript #fascicle 85. First published by Higginson, Atlantic Monthly, 68 (October 1891), 446-47, from the lost copy to him ([A]); Poems (1891), 140-41, from the fascicle copy (C), with the alternative not adopted. Courtesy of Amherst College, Amherst, Mass.

This fascicle version of the poem is an example of the second most frequent form in Dickinson’s canon, the short meter of quatrains of 6686 rhyming abcb. Other notable poems in this form are: “It would have starved a Gnat” (F444), “They shut me up in Prose” (F445), “The Heart asks Pleasure first” (F588), “Essential Oils – are wrung –“ (F772).

In this much-read poem, the form achieves a comic effect and provides concrete details of the natural world the poet observes closely, as allegory for the human world, according to some commentators. The short lines, elaborated by the longer 3rd line, combine directness with a fable-like quality.

Disturbance–metrical as well as thematic–occurs in the fourth stanza, whose lines contain 7676 syllables–a kind of rhythmic “crumb” thrown in the way of the reader. The extra syllable in “Cautious” alerts us to a shift in tone. That line is also an example of what Cristanne Miller calls “syntactic doubling,” a phrase that can apply logically to the bird and the speaker. Sharon Cameron notes that the poem

exemplifies a typical pattern of development in a good number of Dickinson’s utterances, as they linger on concrete, often trivial but entirely comprehensible phenomena, and then alter their focus in a tensile shift of the received lines into a shape that utterly perplexes them.

The last stanza shows the residual effect of this disturbance but begins to drop back into the earlier rhythm, in its irregular stanza form of 7686. Again, the extra syllable on “Ocean” signals that something special happens here; to quote from another famous Dickinson poem about possible delirium: “Rowing in Eden – / Ah – the sea!” (“Wild Nights,” F269).

Helen Vendler, who describes this poem as “about aesthetic ecstasy obliterating the memory of savagery,” calls our attention to the wonderful “charm” and “opulence” of sounds in this last stanza: the “oh” sounds in “rolled … rowed … Home … Oars … Ocean,” followed by the sibilant s’s of “silver … seam,” and then the weightless “Butterflies, off Banks of Noon,” culminating is the near onomatopoeia of “ Leap, plashless” to describe the flight of some by now allegorical winged thing.

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