A fun fact about Emily Dickinson: you can sing pretty much all of her poems to the Gilligan’s Island theme song. Fortunately for us, Julia Massey did not chose to take that obvious route when setting Dickinson’s poem “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers” to music, crafting instead this jewel of a song, “Never in Extremity.”
Like the poem, the song contrasts hope and its adversaries in its structure. A jittery piano ostinato/riff feels like a storm pelting the listener with rain, and the smooth-flowing bass line rises and falls like a heavy sea. Above this rises the singer’s voice, sweet but earthy, more honey than saccharine, pushing forward with the aid of chiming bells and her own voice occasionally doubled in harmony. The song climaxes with the repetition of the phrase “yet never in extremity” and an intensification of the piano and bass parts, finding a peaceful and quiet resolution at the very end, hope having never asked for a crumb.
Full disclosure, I studied poetry in grad school, and I’ve thought a lot about the music found in the bones of all good poems. I’ve had friendly arguments (thanks Bob Dylan and the Nobel Prize people) about whether song lyrics are really poetry in and of themselves, and I think the best of them are. This song, however, has made me want more of what it does, marrying an old poem and popular music, making a bigger thing of both in the union. I think it would be an interesting challenge for more songwriters to meet, especially if they can do it with the skill and creativity displayed here by Julia Massey.