Poetry Review, Emily Dickinson, A Narrow Fellow in the Grass

1 Apr

Sometimes I think that Emily Dickinson is so familiar that we miss some of the oddness of her poetry, particularly in examples like A Narrow Fellow in the Grass.

So the first stanza introduces this narrow fellow in the grass and how he “occasionally rides–/You might have met Him–did you not/His notice sudden is–”  I can’t help but hear Yoda’s voice reading this poem (that would be an album, Yoda reads Dickinson, but I digress) because of the strange syntax used here.  First of all, we’re talking about a snake, and the use of the word “rides’ is very odd, because I don’t think of a snake riding anything, it doesn’t even ride its own feet, but it’s an apt word–Dickinson is indicating the twisting motion that the snake makes in lieu of walking.  Also, his notice sudden is–a backwards formation here, she means that a snake suddenly seems to appear in the grass rather than being something you really approach.

The second stanza describes the snakes movements in rather terrifying detail.  The grass “divides as with a comb–/a spotted shaft is seen–/and then it closes at your feet/and opens further on.”  Part of what makes the snake so gruesome to Dickinson is its unexpectedness.  Notice how we never see an entire snake in this poem, but glimpses here and there.  Also imagining the grasses parting like the red sea so we can see it moving away.    He also likes “a boggy acre/a floor too cool for corn–”  enjoying sensory pleasures that people do not–cold floors, bogs.  Dickinson is making the snake a creature that is completely alien to our preferences.

“Yet when a Boy and Barefoot–/I more than once at Noon/Have passed, I thought, a Whip lash/Unbraiding in the sun/When stooping to secure it/It wrinkled, and was gone–”   This is the oddest part of the poem.  I suppose Dickinson made the voice a boy’s because he’d be more likely to wander among the grasses and such, and would more likely think such a thing was a whiplash.  It’s like the boy is going back and describing some horror, noting that he was barefoot (it could have bitten me), and he reached down to grab it, and off it scurried.  Interestingly enough the snake hurries away (in fact, the snake doesn’t seem to be after people at all.)

“Several of Nature’s people/I know, and they know me–/I feel for them a transport/of cordiality–”  These lines are fairly easy, she knows the other animals of the field and likes them.    Cordiality makes me think of neighborly, warm and friendly feelings.

“But never met this fellow/Attended, or alone/Without a tighter breathing/And Zero at the Bone–”  But she cannot like the snake–seeing it makes her panic and become unsteady.

So, the snake in the grass–a creature who seems to delight to startle, who cannot be caught, who fools people.    The oddness of this poem is that it’s not so much about the snake, but Dickinson’s feelings about snakes in general–mysterious tricky creatures, and it’s that mysteriousness coupled with surprise that really unnerves her.

If this poem was simply Emily Dickinson Does Not Like Snakes we wouldn’t be caring about it so much today, but it’s an admission that not all things are good, some things cause disgust, and there’s no questioning that she means animals to represent people (she insists on calling the snake a fellow after all). And a lot of the words referring to the snake have particular connotations when you apply them to people–narrow, meaning narrow minded or small, spotted/spotty inconsistent and undependable, wrinkled–old, ugly.

I really like Dickinson because her poems are like tiny intricate puzzles to work out, and she always pays you back for your work with interest.

2 Responses to “Poetry Review, Emily Dickinson, A Narrow Fellow in the Grass”

  1. afeefriyas February 9, 2014 at 1:58 am #


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