illustration of a gray snake moving through a field of green grass

A Narrow Fellow in the Grass

by Emily Dickinson

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Critical Overview

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Perhaps because it is one of only a few poems that Dickinson agreed to publish in her lifetime, “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass” has received a great deal of critical attention. The famous critical biographer George Frisbie Whicher, in his This Was a Poet, writes of the poem’s first publication in 1866. According to Whicher, no readers in Dickinson’s day appreciated the poem’s “quaint wizardry of precision,” nor did her contemporaries seem to recognize “that nothing at once so homely and so unexpected, so accurate in image and so unpredictable in its aptness, had yet appeared in American poetry.” In fact, Whicher, who calls the poem a “tiny masterpiece,” goes on to point out that the only notable comment made about the poem was a question concerning how Dickinson, a woman, could have known that a boggy field was bad for corn.

Another critic, Cynthia Griffin Wolff, writing in her literary biography Emily Dickinson, praises “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass” as “perhaps the most nearly perfect poem addressing a nature possessed of some compelling mystery.” Wolff describes how the poem “moves the snake into some undefined psychological relationship with the speaker, a move away from simple realism toward a portent of danger.” According to Wolff, the poem begins with the “civilized” experience of an adult describing the motion of a snake, “then moves beyond the boundaries of arable land, into the swamp where not even corn can grow.” There, the speaker recalls the “more vulnerable” experience of encountering snakes as a frightened child. Wolff suggests that this terror of snakes formed during childhood experiences carries into adulthood, so that in the final stanzas the adult speaker is unable to see the snake as anything but “fearsome and chill.”

A third critic, David Porter, writing in his Dickinson: The Modern Idiom, focuses his criticism of the poem upon the way that Dickinson uses language. According to Porter, Dickinson “shows us less the way a snake looks than how ingenuity can reanimate language and put it up to saying new things.” Porter highlights Dickinson’s peculiar use of the word “narrow,” saying that it is an “unlikely quantification” for a snake, and goes on to point out how the whole poem is a “word performance” full of wonderfully surprising, unconventional language.

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Essays and Criticism