In this poem, Dickinson gives a small portrait of the bat, that imperfect creature. The poem opens by saying it is brownish-gray and its wings are wrinkled (“The Bat is dun, with wrinkled Wings –“), like an old faded newspaper clippling (“Like fallow Article –“)—clearly not the most beautiful of creatures. Although it flies, unlike a bird it does not have the gift of song (“And not a song pervade his Lips—“), thus it is not attractive visually or aurally.
When he flies, he looks like half of a small umbrella (“His small Umbrella quaintly halved”), and he flies with no discernible pattern (“Describing in the Air / An Arc alike inscrutable”)—even a “Philosopher” could not predict his movements, so erratic are they.
The final two stanzas of the poem question why it is that he was made this way, what his purpose is. “Deputed from what Firmament” asks who has delegated him, and for what purpose, what task. “Empowered with what Malignity / Auspiciously withheld” wonders what bad powers he has been granted, although he chooses not to use them.
The final stanza makes it clear that although the above has largely been a negative description, his skillful creator should be praised (“To his adroit Creator / Ascribe no less the praise –“), for though he is eccentric, though it may not be easy to discern what is good about these eccentricities, they are indeed “Beneficent.”
“The Bat is dun, with wrinkled Wings –,” in giving a portrait of the bat, also extols the virtues of inscrutability. The bat, unlike its flying peers, birds, cannot sing, or if it does, it does so in a way that cannot be perceived or understood (“Or none perceptible”). Thus the bat does not communicate its emotions or philosophies to the world; the observer has no recourse but to guess what it is thinking.
Even the bat’s physical movements give no clue—his “Arc” is “alike inscrutable,” his erratic and unpredictable flights offer the observer no insight into his character or feelings, as inscrutable as the air itself (which is emphasized by the significant alliteration in these two lines). The bat’s inscrutability is further underscored in the next stanza, which, although it contains no question marks, is fully interrogatory, wondering who designed this creature, and for what purpose.
The poem then turns to the bat’s creator, which seems to be a result of the meditation on the bat’s inscrutability, its seeming purposelessness. His creator, too, is impossible to know, his motivations difficult to understand, and the bat, this mysterious and seemingly useless creature, is an example of this. Because the bat comes to symbolize his creator’s inscrutability, he becomes more closely tied to the creator than most other creatures, and from thence comes his attraction to the speaker.
That this portrait of the bat is meant to be positive is clear, even though it opens with a fairly negative description, and never describes any obviously positive quality. This is largely clear because of the last stanza, in which Dickinson personally speaks for the bat’s goodness—“Beneficent, believe me” (emphasis mine). However, there are clues earlier, as when she describes him as a “small Umbrella quaintly halved”—one does not normally associate halving an umbrella with quaintness, but this word certainly has a positive connotation.
This poem also seems to want to say that all of nature is created by God, the beautiful, the majestic, the cute, but also creatures like the bat, that seem to have nothing attractive about them, that not only have no physical beauty, but that don’t have any apparent helpful purpose to the world. Dickinson is not willing to limit herself to the obviously beautiful parts of nature—it is all created by God, and thus valuable, and one cannot presume to understand God, nor his purposes or meanings in creating different creatures, thus to judge a creature for its seeming deficiencies is wrong.