Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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I’ve Heard it in the Chillest Land

Res Publica

August 2009

by Tim Haglund

“Hope” is the thing with feathers—

That perches in the soul—

And sings the tune without the words—

And never stops—at all—

And sweetest—in the Gale—is heard—

And sore must be the storm—

That could abash the little Bird

That kept so many warm—

I’ve heard it in the chillest land—

And on the strangest Sea—

Yet, never, in Extremity,

It asked a crumb—of Me.

—Emily Dickinson

“Hope.” Dickinson deliberately distinguishes this first word of her poem. This “thing with feathers” invites strong conversation. Since November, some in the public eye have caricatured the “hope” of our political discourse to be something more ’Alice-in-Wonderlandish’ than genuine. Yet “hope” certainly dovetails nicely with our national character. America’s heroes are many things, but not least of all are hopeful; just look at a spry Mark Twain, a knee-slapping Lincoln, a defiant Frederick Douglass. And if A Raisin in the Sun says something universal about hope, it’s still certainly an exhibition of the American spirit, perhaps even because it’s meant for everyone. “Hope” may be a vital part of “we the people.”

The Greeks first meditated upon this question: “who are we?” To them it was clear that something particular to humans, and more particular to Greeks, gave mankind control over the rest of nature. Stories of great men displayed these exclusively human virtues; Homer explained how his Odysseus could defeat the beastly Cyclops with some cunning tricks. Theban King Oedipus of Sophoclean tragedy was known not as a he-man, but for his mastery of riddles. The Greek heritage called this prevailing quality of their heroes ’logos,’ something in the soul that we identify as rationality. Even today, we continue to define ourselves through what is rational: as if full-blown Athenians, Americans are infinitely proud of their universities. In ways very much like the Greeks, we can agree with their idea that man’s nature is immutable. Also recognizing the American idea of hope’s significance, it therefore may be instructive to think about hope and its relation to us, for in the “chillest land” and on the “strangest Sea,” hope may be all there is.

The cunning Odysseus sailed “strange seas” himself, finally arriving at the land of the Cyclopes. It didn’t take long for a gargantuan creature there to gobble up several Greeks. Speaking with the monster, Odysseus was told, “We Cyclopes do not care about any of your blessed gods, for we are ever so much stronger than they.” These beasts were the foulest things alive—”outlaws” with no manners, no civil life. In the face of such danger, many resigned themselves to death. But not Odysseus.

One great American named Frederick Douglass might have called this Homeric confidence the “elasticity of spirit.” Douglass even felt this spirit to be simple proof of his manhood: his will could not be broken by the whip. The self-taught freedman harbored “hope” his whole life, especially when it became bleakest: “in the darkest hours of my career in slavery,” he said, “this living word of faith and spirit of hope departed not from me, but remained like ministering angels to cheerme through the gloom.”

As Dickinson demonstrates, it’s sometimes hard to understand “hope” as something purely human because it is often considered at odds with the rationality of the Greeks. When detached from our better sensibilities; “hope” is deemed childish—even precarious. In her poem, Dickinson chooses to manifest “hope” in something very unconcerned with our human affairs: a little bird. Unlike what is essential to rationality, Dickinson says “hope” cannot be fully expressed; this little bird “sings the tune without the words.”

In fact, Dickinson’s poem seems much different than the heroic stories of both Odysseus and Frederick Douglass. The extent of this difference is important, because it isn’t clear that this “little bird” can always win out against the harsh strength of nature: Dickinson only says the “storm” that “could abash” hope must be “sore.” What separates the quality of “hope” in Dickinson’s poem from that of these two heroes is revealed by their thoughts before their actions, as the forces of “Extremity” converged upon them.

Douglass was someone who faced “Extremity,” but in a different and perhaps nobler way. More than just asserting his humanity against a Cyclops or a “Gale,” his humanity wasn’t even recognized as a slave. Douglass desperately wished to show he was a man—for he knew this much was true—and hoped that truth could defeat the supposedly ’natural’ institution of slavery. Thus, Douglass deeply understood the power of rationality and the need to connect with the Greek tradition to show his manhood. Even the most disengaged reader knows Douglass learned his way out of slavery.

So too Odysseus reasoned his way to freedom. After Odysseus spoke with the monster, it blocked the opening to a cave the Greeks were stuck in, where Odysseus was left with “deep brooding in his breast.” Philosopher Thomas Hobbes called anger a “sudden rush of hope.” When others failed, Odysseus became indignant—the idea of being enslaved to a beast was something unfit for a Greek. In his “brooding,” Odysseus passionately searched for an advantage over the Cyclops, and quite easily found it: he was smarter than this stupid beast!

It seems odd that Douglass, on the other hand, credited his rise from slavery to “ministering angels.” But, consider: these angels spoke a “living word of faith.” Unlike the bird’s song, this “living word” was something that Douglass could understand. Through the knowledge of words, he became aware of his manhood—and because it was a fact, knew others would also. Though slavery would attempt to make him a beast much like a Cyclops, Douglass was convinced the institution could be defeated by reason; his purpose became linking the slaves’ manhood to “self-evident truths” expressed in the Declaration of Independence. This could be repelled, but not forever. “For a man to say that sweet is bitter—that right is wrong—that light is darkness—is not to injure the truth, but to stamp himself a liar,” he once said.

Emily Dickinson understood the power of hope, but may not have known the source of that power: The Greeks’ hero Odysseus and America’s hero Frederick Douglass both had very good reasons to be hopeful. What is hope, then, but not asking for “a crumb” when you can instead build a wooden horse?

Tim Haglund is a junior from Amherst, Ohio, majoring in History and Economics.

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