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 of 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.
Lines 1–4: In the opening quatrain, Dickinson cleverly disguises the subject of the poem, a snake. This creature sounds harmless enough as it is introduced in line one. The term “narrow Fellow” is a nice use of colloquial language, “narrow,” meaning small in width as compared to length, and “fellow” being a familiar term for a man or a boy, with an undertone that suggests commonness. The choice of the word “rides” is also interesting because it sounds like “glides” and “writhes” but gives the impression that the snake is being carried, or that it is floating along. In addition, the word can also mean torment, harass, or tease, and this definition fits the snake’s reputation as a sly tempter. The speaker goes on to ask readers if they, too, have ever encountered snakes, noting that these “narrow fellows” always seem to take people by surprise.
Lines 5–8: This second quatrain vividly describes the way a snake moves through tall grass. In line one, the grass is compared to hair and the snake to a comb moving through it. In line two, only part of the snake is seen, “a spotted shaft.” The snake is long, slender, and marked with spots, and it is quickly glimpsed as it passes at the speaker’s feet. After the flash of snake, the grass closes up and then is “combed” apart again as the snake moves on. There is something invisible, or ghost-like, in the way the snake slithers along, for the creature is mostly unseen but evidently there.
Lines 9–12: The snake likes “boggy,” or wet and marshy, land. Corn grows best in hot, dry soil, so the snake’s favorite environment is not suitable for growing corn. The speaker goes on to reminisce about one of many childhood encounters with a snake during a morning walk. The speaker’s detail about being barefooted is particularly provocative, for the thought of a snake slithering across one’s naked extremities would make most people cringe.
Lines 13–16 : In these lines, the speaker...
(The entire section is 967 words.)