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‘Hope Is The Thing With Feathers That Perches In The Soul’

Enough Gloom!

Against Darth Vader and the Anglican Covenant we need to put on all the armour of light.

cf Romans 13.12


Oscar Hammerstein II was a better role model:

I know the world is filled with troubles and many injustices. But reality is as beautiful as it is ugly. I think it is just as important to sing about beautiful mornings as it is to talk about slums. I just couldn’t write anything without hope in it.


Hope doesn’t get a very good press, if you scan anthologies of poetry or quotations as I have been doing. While the Bible of course stresses the hope that our Christian faith brings us, the secular view seems to be that hopes often do not materialise and then all that is left is despair. Lord Byron warned in ‘Growing Old‘:

 What are the hopes of Man? Old Egypt’s King Cheops erected the first Pyramid
And largest, thinking it was just the thing to keep his memory whole and mummy hid;
But somebody or other rummaging burglariously broke his coffin’s lid.
Let not a monument give you or me hopes, since not a pinch of dust remains of Cheops.


In ‘Answers to questions of Christianity’,  C S Lewis explained why he thought a Pollyanna-like optimism was dangerous:

 If you think of this world as a place intended simply for our happiness, you find it quite intolerable: think of it as a place for correction and it’s not so bad. Imagine a set of people all living in the same building. Half of them think it is a hotel, the other half think it is a prison. Those who think it a hotel might regard it as quite intolerable, and those who thought it was a prison might decide that it was really surprisingly comfortable. So that what seems the ugly doctrine is one that comforts and strengthens you in the end. The people who try to hold an optimistic view of this world would become pessimists: the people who hold a pretty stern view of it become optimistic.


One approach is to whistle in the dark like Queen Victoria, who famously said:

Please understand there is no pessimism in this house and we are not interested in the possibilities of defeat. They do not exist.


Or you can hope, like Micawber, that something will turn up , as Bernard Baruch‘s story illustrates:

 A man sentenced to death obtained a reprieve by assuring the king that he would teach his majesty’s horse to fly within the year—on condition that if he didn’t succeed, he would be put to death at the end of the year. ‘Within a year,’ the man explained later, ‘the king may die, or I may die, or the horse may die. And, in a year, who knows? Maybe the horse will learn to fly.’


I think the problem may lie in what you are hoping for, as Charles Shulz had Snoopy reflect:

Yesterday I was a dog. Today I’m a dog. Tomorrow I’ll probably still be a dog. Sigh! There’s so little hope for advancement.


Hopes are more likely to be realised if they are realistic, thought Isaac Newton:

 Do as well as you can today, and perhaps tomorrow you may be able to do better.


Emily Dickinson found it a reliable, if fragile, companion:

Hope is a thing with feathers that perches in the soul.
And sings the tune without the words and never stops at all.
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.

Bishop Lancelot Andrewes likens hope to an anchor, a helmet and – my favourite– a cork. The idea that we need fear to keep us grounded – and hope to keep us afloat – is irresistible:

The use of hope is twofold: that we rest in hope in this life; that we rest not here, but look for a better. As our life is a sea, hope is compared to an anchor whereby we hold fast; as it is a warfare, our hope is a helmet to save our heads from hurt. As the body liveth spirando, so the soul sperando *…[St] Basil compareth the gospel to a net, and Fear to be the lead which maketh it sink and keepeth it steady, and Hope the cork which keepeth always above; without the lead of Fear it would be carried hither and thither, and without the cork of Hope it would sink down.


The best inspirational poets were the Victorians – and, despite the bad press of ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays‘, the best two of these went to Rugby.  A H Clough‘s poem begins with dashed expectations, but as a whole is an energising hymn to hope:

Say not the struggle naught availeth, the labour and the wounds are vain,
The enemy faints not, nor faileth, and as things have been they remain.
If hopes were dupes, fears may be liars; it may be, in yon smoke conceal’d,
Your comrades chase e’en now the fliers, and, but for you, possess the field.
For while the tired waves, vainly breaking, seem here no painful inch to gain,
Far back, through creeks and inlets making, comes silent, flooding in, the main.
And not by eastern windows only, when daylight comes, comes in the light;
In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly! But westward, look, the land is bright!


Hope is a strong emotion, not a casual whim. In the sense that we have been looking at, it is not the hope of ‘I hope you are well?’, muttered to an acquaintance. It is like Emily Dickinson’s essential oils:

The Attar from the Rose
Be not expressed by Suns — alone —
It is the gift of Screws —


When  Dame Julian of Norwich famously said

And all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well,

it is not the smug, not to say glib, reassurance that it can sometimes seem. Hope is strongly linked to faith and love, as we know 1 Corinthians 13.13 . It is best explained by the strapline in Grandmere Mimi’s ‘Wounded Bird’ blog:

Faith is not certainty so much as it is acting-as-if in great hope.



◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊

*Bishop Lancelot is echoing the motto ‘Dum spiro, spero’ (while I breathe, I hope): ‘As the body liveth spirando, so the soul sperando’, ie ‘as the body lives by breathing, so does the soul by hoping’


The two illustrations are ‘Sunshine on cloud’ by Sky Studio, and ‘Message in a bottle’ by Kutlayev Dmitry,  both via Shutterstock

7 comments on this post:

UKViewer said...

Interesting topic. I love Julian of Norwich’s quote. But I suspect Emily Dickinson’s prose will be more well know, outside Christian Circles.

I was trying to work out the link between Hope and Optimism both positive virtues and not negative such as hopelessness or pessimism. I found an explanation of sorts:

“Is it a question of hope versus optimism? Hope and optimism are often listed as synonyms for each other. In the VIA Study of Virtues and Strengths, both are listed together as one of the universal virtues valued by almost every culture. Both hope and optimism are based in belief and anticipate a positive outcome. Both are considered powerful emotions and therefore forces for good”.(

We are told in the Gospels to have hope, that hope is founded ultimately in placing our total trust in God, whatever happens, whatever situation we find ourselves in.

It just so happens that today’s lectionary reading was Isiah 26:1-6. Which seems to speak very much of hope in and trust in God:

n that day this song will be sung in the land of Judah:
We have a strong city;
God makes salvation
its walls and ramparts.
2 Open the gates
that the righteous nation may enter,
the nation that keeps faith.
3 You will keep in perfect peace
those whose minds are steadfast,
because they trust in you.
4 Trust in the LORD forever,
for the LORD, the LORD himself, is the Rock eternal.
5 He humbles those who dwell on high,
he lays the lofty city low;
he levels it to the ground
and casts it down to the dust.
6 Feet trample it down—
the feet of the oppressed,
the footsteps of the poor.

I can think of other texts, but this one just seemed to fit the bill as good as any.

Perhaps Rudyard Kipling had something to say here:
The Answer

A Rose, in tatters on the garden path,
Cried out to God and murmured ‘gainst His Wrath,
Because a sudden wind at twilight’s hush
Had snapped her stem alone of all the bush.
And God, Who hears both sun-dried dust and sun,
Had pity, whispering to that luckless one,
“Sister, in that thou sayest We did not well —
What voices heardst thou when thy petals fell?”
And the Rose answered, “In that evil hour
A voice said, `Father, wherefore falls the flower?
For lo, the very gossamers are still.’
And a voice answered, `Son, by Allah’s will!'”

Then softly as a rain-mist on the sward,
Came to the Rose the Answer of the Lord:
“Sister, before We smote the Dark in twain,
Ere yet the stars saw one another plain,
Time, Tide, and Space, We bound unto the task
That thou shouldst fall, and such an one should ask.”
Whereat the withered flower, all content,
Died as they die whose days are innocent;
While he who questioned why the flower fell
Caught hold of God and saved his soul from Hell.

It’s definitely about total trust in God and his love and providence for us.

01 December 2011 19:41
j.r. wirshing said...

Far greater things are accomplished with a positive perspective than with the alternative. Bring forth the light!

Lay Anglicana said...

Many thanks, j.r. – the trick is knowing how to stay positive 🙂 Personally, I like the image of a cork bobbing in the sea…

11 April 2012 16:54
11 April 2012 16:52
David Sanger said...

As always keeping us on the way… and indeed with profound hope, not easily found

Lay Anglicana said...

Thank-you for commenting David 🙂

11 April 2012 19:36
11 April 2012 18:02
Charlie McHenry said...

Lovely, if a bit sectarian. Hope is the river that carries life from its inception through the landscape of living to the ultimate death and rebirth that characterizes all cycles in the universe. Without it, all would simply stand still.

Lay Anglicana said...

Sorry about the sectarian aspects 🙂 It was meant to be there if it helps, but not obscure if it is not your thing. We can both agree on ultimate death and rebirth!

11 April 2012 19:36
11 April 2012 18:32

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