Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
One of the best-known Dickinson nature poems, poem 986 is more remarkable for its execution and technique than its content. The narrator unexpectedly encounters a snake in tall marsh grass. Far from tempting the narrator, as the serpent tempted Eve, it induces fear, panting, and a sudden chill. The first eleven lines describe the snake in a personified, almost amiable way. He sometimes “rides” through the grass, parting it like a comb does hair. Yet, when plain sight threatens to betray its exact location, the grass “closes at your feet/ And opens further on—.”
The narrator of this poem is male, perhaps because boys rather than girls would be more likely to walk through marshes; however, the narrator’s sex also underscores the phallic implications of this symbol. If one prefers to see this sexual imagery, it is possible to cite the sexual association of such words and phrases as “Whip lash,” “tighter breathing,” and “Zero at the Bone.” In any event, reading the poem as a commentary on human cunning is entirely consistent with any further level of meaning. The narrator feels cordial toward “Several of Nature’s People” but has only fear for the snake. In this, as in many Dickinson’s poems, one must beware of mixing biographical folklore with the poem and forcing the reading offered by structuralist critics that the poem is Dickinson’s confession of sexual fear.
Reading the poem’s first line aloud causes the tongue to flicker, like that of a snake; sibilants abound in increasing number as the lines describe the snake’s approach. These elements are certainly intentional. Poem 1670 (“In Winter in my Room”) presents a similar encounter, though with a worm-turned-snake. Relating the events as a dream sequence, this narrator flees whole towns from the creature before she dares set the experience down.