Feathered Hope

Unknown-3I’m off to France where I’m attending a conference in Perpignan on ecopoetics with themes of hope and enchantment. So thoughts on enchantment were in my mind this morning as I had a last wander round the garden before heading for the train. The birds were clearly delighted the rain was passed and were in full voice. How could I not be enchanted by these birds that insist on a world that sings, that insist on being heard? Their song lifts my spirits, giving me a sense of a world in which human and more-than-human species might flourish together. They offer an escape from all that seems impossible by allowing me to imagine possibilities that are not escapist. Jane Bennett writes that it is these enchanting possibilities that, “augment the motivational energy needed to move selves from the endorsement of ethical principles to the actual practice of ethical behaviors.”[1]

However, I also recognize that enchantment is not necessarily a single, unadulterated sensation but as Michael Taussig has argued also exists “in its negative form as desecration.”[2]

So with the conference in mind I want to explore how literary birds have been used to represent our human emotional range from enchantment to disenchantment or desecration; how their different stories function in the space between hope and action; how those that enchant us might act as a catalyst to augment our ethical behavior and how negative representations might alert us to unethical behaviour. And most importantly, how these birds might represent an emotional position beyond the dualism of enchantment and desecration.

From earliest times birds have captivated us. We have looked to them as oracles. We have been inspired by their flight that promised us freedom and escape from our human condition. But the recognition that we cannot fly unaided also reveals our limitations. Our aspiration to defy gravity, to escape our human condition is brought down to earth by the reality of our wingless state.

Hope, as the thing with feathers, in Emily Dickinson’s phrase, cannot then be anything but a complex emotion, one that is not necessarily wholly positive. We dream of flying while also having to confront the limitations of our agency. There is an element of uncertainty, even frustration within hope both about a positive outcome and about our efficacy in bringing it about. In other words there is within hope a wish and a goal, as well as fear.

Historically feathered hopefulness in western literature has tended to divide this desire and fear into expressions of flight and fall and was first portrayed as resulting in unethical conduct in the myth of Icarus. I’ll go back to this later because I believe that it is in moving away from this dualism and folding flight and fall together as well as considering low-flying or flightless birds that we can find representations of hope and ethical action.


But first, because the myth of Icarus is an important precursor to grasping how feathered hope might either inspire ethical environmental action or deny it I want to look at it in some detail before moving on to consider Bruegel’s painting The Fall of Icarus, poems by Dickinson and the seventh century poet Alcman. Finally I want to mention Ovid’s story of Alcyone and Ceyx to explore ways in which the emotionally fraught scenario of flight and fall as a metaphor for hope and despair, enchantment and disenchantment may be reconfigured as an ecopoetic of feathered hope, one that transforms rather than deforms.

Ovid’s rendering of the myth of Icarus and his father Daedalus in his Metamorphoses represents Daedalus as an artist-scientist whose disregard for the morals of his time, leave him open to the dangers of overreaching. Ovid places Icarus’s death within a much larger narrative of family relations and interactions with the more-than-human. This larger narrative is relevant to understanding the link between hope and its subsequent positive or negative action.

Ovid presents Daedalus as a renowned inventor who is unable to tolerate challenges to his ability. When his nephew and apprentice Perdix proves to be equally talented Daedalus attempts to murder him by throwing him down the steps of Minerva’s temple.[3] Minerva, however, rescues Perdix by transforming him into a partridge. Daedalus flees to Crete with Icarus, where he works for King Minos and Queen Pasiphae. There he builds a wooden cow for the queen to hide in so she can consummate her passion for a white bull. When the queen becomes pregnant and gives birth to the minotaur, half-man and half-bull, Daedalus builds a labyrinth in which the minotaur is imprisoned. Later, after further betrayals by Daedalus King Minos imprisons Daedalus and Icarus in the labyrinth.


What is significant is that each episode in this story is triggered by an interaction with the more-than-human. Where the action is performed by a god or goddess the outcome is positive, a transformation into a different life-form – Perdix survives as a partridge. Where the action is inspired by ‘unnatural’ human passions, such as Pasiphae’s mating with a bull, the result is monstrous. The first ‘unnatural’ event is Daedalus’s murder of his nephew and the end result is the imprisonment of both Daedalus and Icarus. The myth presents us with the idea of a world that contains deities or natural, more-than-human forces whose actions are transformative while the human actions result in deformation.


Daedalus realises that escaping from the labyrinth by air is the only possibility. By lining up and tying together the feathers of birds of prey ranging in size from the smallest to the largest, binding them with wax and curving them into a replica of a bird’s wing he performs an extraordinary act of creative mimesis. When he attaches the wings to himself and his son Ovid comments that Daedalus has committed himself to unknown arts, thereby changing the laws of nature.

Daedalus, however, is not transformed into a bird; he and Icarus merely simulate birds in flight. When these wings are attached, father and son fly off over the sea, apparently free at last. Icarus flies ever upward in his desire for the immensity and freedom of the sky. Inevitably the sun melts the wax holding the feathers together and Icarus, suspended briefly between life and death, between dream and delusion, plunges downward to his death.

Ovid’s account of the myth focuses on what occurs when humans attempt to appropriate the space and skills of the gods. Rearranging the natural order is a ‘fatal art’ that ends in despair. To Ovid, Daedalus’s crime is clear: he transgresses the limits of human agency and ability and pays an exceptional price in the death of his son.

And that other more-than-human group in this myth, the actual birds are silent actors. They neither sing nor, having been deprived of their feathers, can they fly. Daedalus’ crime has stripped them of their ability to enchant. The myth does not recount the suffering inflicted on the countless birds whose feathers are needed to create wings for the father and son. Daedalus, in fact, preys upon the more-than-human to achieve his own ends.

Falling, in Ovid’s telling of this story results from hoping for transformation without considering the possibility of reciprocity and co-operation with the more-than-human. It is the result of an inability to be enchanted by otherness. It is a form of disenchantment or desecration that results in deformation.

Pieter Bruegel’s painting The Fall of Icarus comments on the myth by departing as Perez Zagorin writes, ‘in significant ways from the established sixteenth century attitude that man occupied the central position in a clearly defined and well-ordered natural world, and hence in the universe.’[4]


In his painting, Bruegel juxtaposes Icarus’s useless feathers floating on the sea with the efficient wind-filled sails of the ships that pass safely by, their sailors engrossed in their world of busy commerce. He asks us to contemplate what it means to be human when faced with disaster. Should we keep our eyes on our own business as the sailors do? Carry on regardless as Bruegel’s ploughman does?

Despite the flailing legs, all appears to be in order. There is, as far as the other figures pictured in this scene are concerned, peace in the natural and human world. Yet Bruegel portrayed this apparently ordered and peaceful world presided over by a setting sun. Why I want to know is the sun setting when the wax holding Icarus’s wings together was presumably melted by the heat of the midday sun?

Bruegel’s sun setting on a world, an ordinary, everyday landscape where those who are apparently secure and unthreatened are indifferent to the small tragedies taking place holds out to us the need for stories that unite those who suffer and those who perpetuate suffering; those who fly and those who fall; the need to recognise the role of the everyday and the suffering that occurs – for human and more-than-human – unnoticed within it. These are the interactions that are crucial for life. Without them enchantment withers and hope can turn to despair.

Today the unusual heat of a setting sun speaks to us of a moment in time poised between our technological glories and the imminent extinction of many species, if not ourselves. Sometimes it is the smallest thing that topples us, like Icarus, into the realization that we are human, vulnerable, close to drowning, as when we ask ourselves, is it possible to imagine a world without birds, without their activities of seed dispersal, natural pollination and pest control? Without their songs?

A world without feathers, Emily Dickinson might say, is a world without hope, a world in which ‘the most insidious kind of extinction – the extinction of interactions’[5] has come to pass.

Jed Deppman argues that ‘many of Dickinson’s poems can be read as resourceful, even desperate attempts to supply imagery for the thoughts and experiences that most defy the imagination.’[6] He also questions whether these attempts are constructed through the opposition of hope and despair. Likewise, Richard Brantley, rather than interpreting Dickinson through contrary emotions, believes ‘her recurring pessimism contains a seed of her perennial resilience’ and that her ‘signature lyric of “sumptuous Destitution -” epitomizes her hope as well as her despair, and intimates the interpenetration, or coalescence, of these, and of such other paired stances as sorrow and joy.’[7] It is Dickinson’s bird poems that introduce us to representations of birds that constantly break down the dualisms of flight and fall, hope and despair. Rather than simplifying hope into a single emotional unit, they symbolize a folding together of aspiration and dejection thereby freeing up a space for hope in which enchantment can augment the power to act.

On a general level, Dickinson’s poetry moves through minor victories and defeats, moments of despair balanced by moments of inspiration, a lifetime of ascending and falling, setting out to fly again and again. Her writing offers more than mere consolation. While there can be no unbridled optimism for an ecologically enlightened future, her writing calls us to aspire to effect change, it holds out a promise, a tenuous hope balanced between earth and sky – a bird perched in the soul.

Here’s her poem Hope is the Thing with Feathers

Hope is the thing with feather

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.

Dickinson’s deceptively simple metaphor ‘hope is the thing with feathers’ captures the aspiration and fragility of realistic expectations, as well as dreams of wish-fulfilment and overreaching. Her hope as a soft songbird that ‘perches in the soul’ is a metaphor of the more-than-human inhabiting the human.[8] Although it is resilient ‘in the chillest land and ‘on the strangest sea’ this bird merely perches, being neither captive nor tame. The possibility remains, however, that if it does fly away, it may return. By having the hope-bird never ask for crumbs and implying that the speaker supplies them out of love, Dickinson demonstrates her belief that the tiniest amount freely given can keep hope alive. This exchange of loving generosity between the human and bird in Dickinson’s poem holds out the hope, no matter how insecure, that such an exchange between human and more-than-human may provide an antidote to the sense of hopelessness experienced by those ‘abashed’ in a world where the more-than-human are invariably deprived of ‘crumbs’.

The hope bird is not identified in the poem but Jane Donahue Eberwin states that one of Dickinson’s favourite birds was the wren. Eberwin remarks that ‘It seems to have been the tiny creature’s force and courage that delighted the poet, its capacity to challenge the heavens and its melodious song …’[9] In contrast, Dickinson describes the lark[10] as ignoring unattainable – or even challenging – alternatives in order to gain stability and comfort. By creating these two differing arenas of successful flight and repudiation of flight Dickinson avoids the fraught scenario of unsuccessful flight, or falling. Her lark’s apparent lack of desire to ‘challenge the heavens’ is not necessarily framed within a sense of loss. It is, simply, another option, neither superior nor inferior to flight. By these means Dickinson also establishes hope as a paradoxical combination of vulnerability and power perched precariously within the human. This crease or fold within the psyche negates any clear-cut opposition between flight and fall and its association with hubris and punishment.[11]

Hope she implies can also be found among the birds that hover, flutter, or skim the surface.

In his story of Icarus and Daedalus Ovid writes of Perdix who was transformed into a partridge. Although he fell, Perdix through divine wisdom became a bird and retained his human intelligence. He kept a low profile and did not fly too high. Ever mindful of the ‘middle way’ Perdix the partridge nestles in hedgerows, avoiding high places and lofty flights. Can low-flying birds also enchant us, tell us stories of hope; what poetry can be found in the swift and delicate, almost touching, dipping and lifting flight of fluttering birds?

Alcman, a poet of the late seventh century BC, claims to have created poetry by listening ‘to the cry of partridges, a cry literally endowed with a tongue … He learned to sing by attending to that tongued cry, which he then “arranged” into human rhythms.’[12]

In his “Halcyon Song”, Alcman creates a regular rhythm like the motion of waves and the winging of birds and in “Night Song”, he describes the peaceful sleep of long-winged birds. These rhythms are not those of the bird of prey, hovering and possessively scanning the earth below. Rather they resemble the poetry that Seamus Heaney speaks of as ‘emanating from the ground …[13] where ‘the physical terrain itself is the “nesting ground” of the imagination, which, like a womb, nurtures and gives birth to the artistic expression.’[14]


(In a similar fashion) in Book XI of his Metamorphoses Ovid tells the story of the transformation of a human couple into kingfishers. A newly wed couple, Alcyone and Ceyx are separated by Ceyx’s decision to embark, against his wife’s wishes, on a sea journey to consult an oracle. When he drowns in a storm and Alcyone discovers his body on the shore, she leaps onto a nearby jetty intending to cast herself into the sea and drown. Instead she is transformed and, ‘with her new-grown wings did beat the air as tho; and on the waves, a wretched bird, she whisked to and fro.’[15] When she reaches her husband’s body she takes him in her wings and kisses him with her beak and through the pity of the gods he too is transformed into a kingfisher.

The flight of the individual, in this story arises from desperate grief rather than boundless desire, while the flight of the couple, or species, results from a love that lasts beyond death. In contrast to the flight of Daedalus, the father and inventor, Ovid offers the flight of a wife who through love nourishes and restores her husband to life. It is not lust for achievement but love that transfigures the couple into bird-humans rather than a human with artificially attached wings. As kingfishers they mate and build a nest that floats on the sea. Aeolus forbids the winds to blow during this time and the bird’s descendants are thereby provided with a tranquil sea during the nesting season. This is the intimate poetry of life, not death in a flurry of glory. The appearance of the kingfisher signals hope. Its flight leaves a trace between air and sea, a living creature and a poem.

Can we then hope that from the sea of Icarus’s shattered dreams, feather-light words may float on the page as ecopoetry, fragile yet buoyant with promise in our age of environmental hubris? Freud’s understanding of falling as both fear and wish includes the idea of falling as a wish for transformation.

Icarus’s fall as a wish for transformation or rebirth is suggested in Susan Steward’s poem ‘The Survival of Icarus’ which suggests the possibility that Icarus may have wished not only to fly but to discover through falling an identification with Dickinson’s powerful Nature that defies human mastery. It offers us the small but evocative and powerful hope of words that make a difference.

My father saw the feathers on the waves and grieved

And hadn’t heard the voice within the wind

That blew the wax back into form the way

The cold dawn shapes a candle’s foam.

I had heard that voice before

In some far time beyond this place

And I think of it now as a living net,

Though I do not know how it spans our world

Or if it sings from its strings or its spaces.[16]

All this may seem to have little to do with gardening but if we fail to love and care for birds in the garden we become like Daedalus – unable to feel for others, to be enchanted by others and our hopes for the future of gardens will be compromised.

[1] Jane Bennett, p.xi.

[2] Michael Taussig, Defacement: Public Secrecy and the Labour of the Negative, Stanford University Press, 1999, p. 13.

[3] The myth of Daedalus and Icarus is part of the Minoan cycles of myths in which the Roman goddess Minerva is known as Athena. Ovid, however, uses the name Minerva throughout his story of Daedalus and Icarus in book VIII of the Metamorphoses.

[4] Perez Zagorin, Looking for Pieter Bruegel, Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 64, No. 1 January 2003, pp.73-96.

[5] Gary Paul Nabhan, Cultures of Habitat: On Nature, Culture and Story, Washington DC., Counterpoint, 1997, p. 259.

[6] Jed Deppman, Trying to Think with Emily Dickinson, The Emily Dickinson Journal, Vol. XIV, No. 1, 2004, pp. 84-103.

[7] Richard E. Brantley, Dickinson’s Signature Conundrum, The Emily Dickinson Journal, Vol. XVI, No. 1, 2007, pp.27-52.

[8] I use the term ‘more-than-human’ in the sense employed by David Abram in his The Spell of the Sensuous: Perception and Language in a More-than-Human World.

[9] Jane Donahue Eberwein, Dickinson: Strategies of Limitations, Minnesota, University of Massachusetts Press, 1987, p. 11-12.

[10] Dickinson was referring to the American lark not the English skylark.

[11] See for example,

[12] Winged Words, p. 79.

[13] Seamus Heaney, Feeling into Words, Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1978, Faber, London, 1980, p. 45.

[14] Seamus Heaney, Mossbawn, Preoccupations, p. 19.

[15] Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book XI, lines 845-846.

[16] Susan Steward, The Survival of Icarus, Columbarium, Chicago University Press, Chicago, 2003.