A Bird Came Down The Walk
“A Bird Came Down the Walk” is a short nature poem by Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886). It is about the poet’s encounter with a worm-eating bird. The poem was first published in the second collection of Dickinson’s poems in 1891.
This is a natural poem, but one with a difference, as Dickinson urges us to look closely at the detail, to explore beneath the surface, and to apprehend something of the essence of this creature—its natural elegance, but also its essential oddity and difference.
The bird’s crude predatory nature (‘He bit an Angleworm in halves/And ate the fellow, raw’) is combined with a sort of diffidence or politeness (‘And then hopped sidewise to the Wall/To let a Beetle pass’). The more obvious creaturely qualities are present: the natural beauty of the ‘Velvet Head’ and the unrolled feathers, the prim, erratic bird-like movements (‘He glanced with rapid eyes/That hurried all around’) and the natural caution of a wild creature (‘like frightened Beads’, ‘like one in danger, Cautious’). But above all, what is celebrated is the miraculousness of flight as the bird blends into the elements, unifying air, water and light, displaying its mastery. The first striking metaphor sees the bird compared to a confident, relaxed rower, with the suggestion that the bird’s natural element is the air (‘home’). Naturalness is the paramount quality, as the comparisons emphasise the grace, elegance, lack of disturbance and perfect blend of creature and medium:
And rowed him softer home –
Than Oars divide the Ocean,
Too silver for a seam –
The playful summer gentleness of butterflies adds a romantic element. The synaesthetic fusion of water, air and light (‘Banks of Noon’) underlines the perfection of the movement and the lack of disturbance (‘plashless as they swim’). This image has connotations too of youthful exuberance and joy, of summers spent swimming in the river. Altogether, the poem celebrates the beauty of creatures and their mastery of the elements, but also their essential wildness.
Defamiliarising the familiar
In an effort to get us to look again, to see beneath the accepted, Dickinson gently shocks us into rethinking by ‘defamiliarising’ the familiar. For example, the bird, romantic instrument of song, symbol of poetic flight, is shown in all its awful naturalness as a greedy killer (‘ate the fellow, raw’). Even the sound of the word ‘raw’ helps to reinforce the crudeness of the situation. But at a deeper level, Dickinson alters the whole construction of reality, as in the final stanza, where the elements fuse together and time and space shift dimensions as the bird ‘like a butterfly, swims, sails, leaps, flies, soars’ (Juhasz, Miller and Smith). These critics use the term ‘transformations’ to describe this technique.
Identifying with the subject
It is clear that at first Dickinson describes what she sees, though with her own particular slant. But then the speaker enters the picture and becomes more closely identified with the subject. Cristanne Miller explains how this identification is achieved through grammar and syntax, in a process, she terms ‘syntactic doubling’. Dickinson’s compressed epigrammatical style of writing causes ambiguity, especially when ‘using a single phrase to cover two non-parallel syntactic contexts’ (Miller). For example, the middle line below could refer to either the first or third line:
He stirred his Velvet Head
Like one in danger, Cautious,
I offered him a Crumb
The feelings of danger and caution are shared by both speaker and bird. This weakening of the distinction between the self and the other (or speaker and subject) is developed further in the climax of the poem, where the speaker half-creates what she sees and herself shares in the experience.
Humour and wit
Juhasz, Miller and Smith examine the comic elements in this poem. The incongruities in the bird’s behaviour are the most obvious expressions of humour: the natural carnivore’s killer instinct exists side by side with a sense of civility and good manners (‘an awareness of social etiquette from the raw worm eater’). Notice the irony of his guilt – the furtive shifting around in case his courteous behaviour is noticed! Juhasz, Miller and Smith also link the deeper transformations already mentioned to the anarchic transformations of cosmic vision, where reality is reconstructed in unaccustomed combinations, thereby producing laughter.
Nature has been a significant theme in Dickinson’s poetry. She never claimed to have understood the deep mystery of natural phenomena. She believed that God and nature were two unknowable entities beyond the range of human mind. Man must admit the complexity of natural phenomena; their inner significance and how insignificant man is in the enormous spectacle of nature with its limited identity. Dickinson has over a hundred poems dealing with all possible creatures, objects, forces and phenomena of nature.
‘A Bird came down the Walk’ is an extraordinary poem based on nature. Apparently simple, it goes to the very heart of nature. The bird that figures in this poem symbolises the unyielding mystery of nature. The bird comes down the walk unaware that it is being watched. The poet keenly depicts the bird as it eats an angleworm, then drinks a drop of dew from a grass leaf, hops sideways to let a beetle pass by. The bird is expected to be aggressive towards the worm, which it eats in order to survive. However, its shocking conduct of allowing the beetle politely to pass on intensifies the basic tenet that nature believes in – live and let live! The insecurity of the bird’s life is conveyed by the expression ‘frightened beads’. Its frightened, bead-like eyes glance all around. While the speaker with all good intentions offers it some crumbs, out of suspicion and fear, the bird unrolls its feathers and flies away home softly. The natural creature is freighted by the observer into flying away gracefully without disturbing the environment like a butterfly. It merges smoothly with nature. At once, the bird becomes a symbol of the quick, lively wild essence that distances nature from the human world, which aims to tame or appropriate it. The quotidian experience of observing a bird and its movements inspires the poet to exhibit her extraordinary poetic power of observation and description. Emily Dickinson never claimed to have understood the deep mystery of the phenomena of nature. She believed God and nature were two unknowable entities beyond the range of human perception. Man must admit the complexity of natural phenomena, nature’s inner significance and their own relative insignificance.
Questions and Answers
Q. How has Dickinson described nature in the poem “A Bird Came down the Walk”?
Ans. This nature poem deals with man’s alienation from nature. The bird is an emblem of the unyielding mystery of nature. Dickinson keenly depicts the bird that is at home among nature being aggressive towards the warm and politely indifferent beetle. While the speaker is enjoying her secret spying which adds to the tension, the scene becomes more explicit in the third stanza with the description of the bird’s frightened uneasiness. The speaker appreciates the bird’s increased beauty under stress, a stress which is implied by the metaphors of its eyes being like beads and head being like velvet. As the natural creature is about to flee, it becomes a symbol of the wild essence that distances nature from the artificial world of man. However, the most remarkable feature of the poem is the imagery used in the final stanza. Here the poet provides one of the most breath-taking descriptions of the bird’s flight. Just by offering two quick comparisons of flights and by using aquatic motion (rowing and swimming) the poet presents the bird’s power, ease and union with nature. The bird departs into an ocean of air where the entire creation blends seamlessly in itself. The flight through the air is equated with movement through water, leading to the image of butterflies leaping ‘off Banks of Noon’; and ‘plashlessly swimming through air’ is one of the most remarkable comparisons in all of Dickinson’s writings.
Q. Describe the structure of the poem.
Ans. Structurally ‘A Bird came down the Walk’ is absolutely typical of Dickinson; it uses iambic trimeter with occasional four-syllable lines; her stanza forms, typically quatrains following a loose ABCB rhyme scheme and rhythmically breaking up the meter with long dashes’; her unusual emphasis on words, either through capitalisation or line position. In the poem, in each quatrain, specific words are capitalised to stress. Her quatrains are typically closed in the poem, meaning that while the first and third lines rhyme with each other, so do the second and the fourth.