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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Poetic Techniqes and Various Levels of Meaning

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Emily Dickinson uses a medley of poetic techniques to craft her poem “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass.” Throughout the poem, Dickinson balances the tension between the admiration of the object she describes—the snake—and the fear of it. “A Narrow Fellow” is in many ways a study in poetic technique, with carefully chosen images, instances of alliteration and rhyme, and the use of personification. Dickinson pays close attention to the look, shape, and sound of the words themselves, as well as the feeling created by the punctuation. “A Narrow Fellow” can be interpreted at several levels. First, it can be read on a literal level as a description of a snake. On a second level, however, Dickinson’s imagery can be read as sexually nuanced. Reading the poem at these various levels creates ambiguity in the meaning. It also shows Dickinson to be ahead of her time in poetic technique, allowing “A Narrow Fellow” a more modern feel.

Very few of Dickinson’s poems were published in her lifetime. “A Narrow Fellow” was one of about a dozen poems published in her lifetime, and scholars aren’t sure if it was published with her permission or not, or even if she sought publication. The poem appeared on February 14, 1866, in the Springfield Daily Republican, originally titled “The Snake.” “A Narrow Fellow” has received a good deal of critical attention, with literary critic Daniel Hoffman calling Dickinson’s “Zero at the Bone” the finest image in American poetry (as quoted in George Monteiro’s article). When reading this poem, it’s important to look and listen closely to Dickinson’s language, tone, images and use of punctuation. Dickinson was a poet who took risks. Biographer Paula Bennett explains: “Dickinson had to take risks—risks with her language and risks with her audience’s willingness to play along. Reading her poem, we must think and see in new ways and entertain descriptions in wording, tone, subject and grammar for which conventional usage provides few, if any, precedents.” This essay examines Dickinson’s unconventionality, as well as some of the risks she takes as a writer.

The old adage that poetry is meant to be read aloud is appropriate for this poem. Dickinson uses the device of sound throughout the poem; hearing this poem is as important as seeing the words. Dickinson creates both a visual and an auditory image of the snake with her language. This begins from the very first line: “A narrow Fellow.” Literary critic George Monteiro has looked closely at the sound devices Dickinson uses in this poem. He argues that the phrase “narrow fellow” “recreates, in a sense, the very movement of the snake as it ‘rides’ along the ground. The very size of the letters—all letters of a small size in the first word and an organized sequence of letters of a small and a taller size in the second word—orchestrate the poet’s perception of the way this creature makes its way around.”

The phrase “narrow fellow”—in addition to replicating the movement of the snake—also creates a very soothing sound that rolls off the tongue. Too, the word “grass” has a flow and movement about it, and its “ss” ending could be said to mimic a snake’s hissing sound. The “s” sound continues throughout the first stanza, with “occasionally rides” and “his notice sudden is.” Even the look of the letter “s” itself is snakelike. Dickinson employs the technique of euphony, where the sound of words easily flows. Literary critic Barbara Seib Ingold, building on Monteiro’s interpretation of the poem, writes: “The extensive use of long, resonant vowels and other soft, mellifluous consonants (l, m,...

(This entire section contains 1898 words.)

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n, r, v, f, w, th, and wh) throughout the poem gives it a euphonious sound.” This euphonious sound no doubt sets the tone for the poem: calm, musical, almost Edenic. The speaker is comfortable with the subject, the “narrow fellow” that seems harmless and, in fact, graceful.

But the snake is elusive; it hides in the grass, flitting out of sight when the speaker spots it. The grass is conducive to the snake’s movement; it “divides as with a Comb,” creating an opening and closing movement. The fluid “s” sound continues throughout the second stanza, with such alliteration as “spotted shaft.” Cynthia Griffin Wolff, a Dickinson scholar, writes about the snakelike quality of the letter “s” and the sound it creates in this poem: “Sinuous, serpentine movement is sustained for many lines by the insistent reiteration of the sounds.” Also, the continuous dashes—an unconventional use of punctuation Dickinson is known for—keep the poem moving from one line to the next. The snake continues to move as well, coming into close proximity to the speaker: “And then it closes at your feet / And opens further on—.” Throughout the poem, the speaker refers to the snake as “he.” He starts out by calling it a fellow— a very familiar type of term. The snake begins to take on a personality as Dickinson uses personification to bring it to life. The personification is dependent upon the speaker feeling familiar and comfortable with the snake, which clearly he does. Dickinson also makes her speaker male, referring to him as a “boy” in the third stanza. These images of maleness will become important as we look at the poem in different ways later in this essay.

In the third stanza, we see another instance of alliteration, this time with the soft “oo” sound. Dickinson speaks of the boggy acre, or wet marshy land, that has a “floor too cool for corn.” Again, the sound is fluid, and it is matched with the image of a cool, wet swampy floor and the snake “riding” through it. In this stanza, the speaker is recalling a childhood memory of watching the snake and not recognizing it. In the fourth stanza, he recalls a time he mistook the snake for a “Whip lash / Unbraiding in the Sun.” The “s” sound continues as he tries “stopping to secure it,” but it “wrinkled, and was gone—.”

The image of a snake “wrinkling” suggests the snake was frightened by the approach of the speaker. “Wrinkle” hardly seems the graceful image of the grass dividing or the spotted shaft riding along the boggy acre. This characterization of the snake as a timid creature further develops the personification. In the next stanza, the speaker even refers to animals as “Nature’s People,” suggesting a kind of collective personification of animals. The speaker feels close to animals, feels for them a kind of “cordiality.” The speaker makes this statement as a sort of caveat or disclaimer—this is understood in the final stanza when the speaker makes it clear that the snake, this “narrow fellow,” is an exception to that safe feeling of comfort and cordiality.

In fact, the speaker’s fear is exposed in the final stanza, leaving us with the final image of the speaker meeting the snake with a “tighter breathing” and a feeling of “Zero at the Bone.” Ingold has remarked that this final image “vividly portrays the breathtaking, icy feeling that one experiences when faced with an irrational fear. When one reads these lines, the thought of being ‘zero at the bone’ causes one to feel coldness and to shiver.” This immense feeling of fear contrasts with the rest of the poem; even the language changes. Dickinson moves from the soft “s” sounds and cool “oo” sounds with the hard sound of “z” in “Zero” and “b” in “Bone.” This creates a cacophony, or harder, disjointed sounds. The fear of the speaker echoes through the final cacophonous sounds.

Cynthia Griffin Wolff has read this poem on a more symbolic level. She says: “Dickinson stipulates a man-and-boy for speaker, perhaps to emphasize the implications of male sexuality or even phallic brutality that the notions of a snake so often carries—implications that are reinforced here in part by the exposed feet and toes and in part by the ‘whip lash’ whose leather is quietly ‘unbraiding in the sun’ like a bundle of worms.” Looking closely at some of the images in the poem, we can get an idea of what Wolff means by this. Snakes have long been phallic images associated with male sexuality; snakes have also been associated with danger, evil, and temptation. Even naming the snake a “narrow fellow” with a “spotted shaft” is sexually suggestive of male genitalia, just as the grass that divides, closing and then “opening further on” is suggestive of female genitalia. Wolff mentions the “phallic brutality” associated with the snake. Throughout the poem, the snake is referred to as a familiar “fellow.” But suddenly, at the end, fear takes over and we’re left with a sense of danger. Whether or not Dickinson was purposefully trying to link male sexuality to a sense of fear and danger, we’ll never know, but the suggestion is there.

Writing about sexuality in the nineteenth century was not as taboo as we might think. Dialogs about sexuality were carried on in covert ways. Women, who were supposed to be pure and demure, couldn’t be quite as open as men. After all, Walt Whitman, a contemporary of Dickinson, celebrated the body and wrote openly about sexuality— both heterosexual and homosexual longings— in his poetry. And the anti-slavery movement often spoke of the horrors of rape and sexual violations black women endured at the hands of their masters. To speak so openly as Whitman was not Dickinson’s style. Her poems are much more controlled, nuanced, and often cryptic. It is this ambiguity that gives her poems their depth. Her language is playful, but it is also doing serious things. Paula Bennett explains: “In the unconventionality of her grammar, as in the unconventionality of her thinking, Dickinson was striking at the foundations supporting Western phallocentric thought.”

In other words, she was quietly challenging the values of her culture that prescribed certain roles for men and certain roles for women and little flexibility between them. This is not to say Dickinson was unhappy in her life, for there is much evidence to show that she was very happy and loved her home and her life in Amherst. But it is to say that Dickinson was a deep thinker, and she took risks with her poetry. Joyce Carol Oates, a writer and critic, sees Dickinson’ poetry as exhibiting a kind of artistic tension. She says: “Art is tension, and poetry of the kind Emily Dickinson wrote is an art of strain, of nerves strung brilliantly tight. It is compact, dense, coiled in upon itself very nearly to the point of pain: like one of those stellar bodies whose gravity is so condensed it is on the point of disappearing altogether.”

Dickinson’s poetic technique was very much an art form she worked hard to refine and hone. The tension in her poetry is still, as Oates say, “strung brilliantly tight” over one hundred years later. The modern reader can glean so much from Dickinson—whether or not Dickinson absolutely intended her poems to be interpreted in certain ways or not—because she leaves so much unsaid, and yet, says so much with so little.

Source: Judi Ketteler, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale Group, 2001. Ketteler has taught literature and composition, with a focus on nineteenth-century literature.

Metaphors Bring New Insights

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Emily Dickinson was a reclusive and mysterious woman who spent half her life in seclusion. Dickinson had a strong sense of her own spirituality even as a young woman. Before she reached twenty years of age, she left Mount Holyoke Female Seminary because she refused to join the Congregationalist church, which was heavily influenced by Calvinism. Unwilling to live the restricted lifestyle required by the church (which included, among other things, disapproval of reading novels), Dickinson returned home to her family. She, like Henry David Thoreau, simplified her life in terms of objects and duties. Her poetry testifies to her attention to spiritual matters, and although she did not participate in church services, she was a Christian, a belief that is reflected in her poetry. Her simple life enabled her to turn inward, observe nature, and write poetry daily as she liked.

Among Dickinson’s daily tasks was tending her beloved garden, and many of her poems reflect this interest. Dickinson’s poetry often describes natural images that lead to deeper insight, and the sparse structure and simple lines frequently belie complex and profound messages. She believed that wisdom was accessible through sense perception, and that if she gave her attention to nature, it would reveal itself to her. Because she wrote little poetry intended for publication, the act of writing poetry may have been a means for her to clarify for herself or at least privately honor what she had learned. “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass” is a perfect example of a seemingly simple poem that contains many insights about the nature of life.

“A Narrow Fellow in the Grass” is typical of Dickinson’s nature poetry because of its succinct presentation, by a detached observer, of the harmonious coexistence of different natural elements. In the first two quatrains (stanzas of four lines), the speaker describes the snake moving through the grass, neither apparently harming the other

A narrow Fellow in the grass Occasionally rides— ….The Grass divides as with a Comb— A spotted shaft is seen— And then it closes at your feet And opens further on—

The snake is not hindered by the thick grass, nor is the grass permanently parted or flattened by the snake’s movement through it. The middle stanza explains that the snake enjoys boggy areas, again illustrating the comfortable interaction of nature’s creatures and environments. The snake also lies in the sun, a completely different environment from a bog, yet this, too, suits the snake very well. Dickinson writes:

I more than once at Noon Have passed, I thought, a Whip lash Unbraiding in the Sun …

The snake is disturbed only when a little boy reaches for him, suggesting that human interference disrupts the natural balance between the snake and his sunny environment (“It wrinkled, and was gone—”).

Until the last stanza, the snake is depicted as a non-threatening creature. The speaker expresses thoughts with an almost childlike sensibility, which is another common feature in Dickinson’s nature poems. The tone is one of discovery and delight, rather than fear and disgust, despite the subject being a snake. For Dickinson, creatures generally considered ugly or repulsive were deserving of poetry because they were part of the natural world. Subjects of her poems include a rat, a fly, a spider, a mushroom, a bat, and weeds. Dickinson’s initial presentation of the snake as non-threatening is expressed by her reference to him as a “fellow,” a congenial, light-hearted word often used to address a boy or man, or even a dog. In the middle stanza, the speaker says that the snake “likes” a bog, rather than using a more neutral term like “seeks out” or “prefers.” By personifying the snake in this way, the speaker casts him as a creature with feelings, and feelings similar to our own.

The change of tone in the final quatrain can be accounted for in numerous ways, but two possibilities seem most worthy of consideration. One is that earlier in the poem the speaker seems to be reminiscing, but at the end the speaker moves into the present. The light-hearted tone and the mention of boyhood experiences in the middle stanza are consistent with the childlike sensibility of the poem. In the last stanza, the speaker uses the word “never,” which includes not only boyhood, but also youth and adulthood. The fear of the snake expressed at the end of the poem may illustrate adult fears of things that seemed harmless in childhood. The loss of innocence educates a person and creates fear; in this case, fear of a snake. Dickinson writes:

But never met this Fellow Attended, or alone Without a tighter breathing And Zero at the Bone—

Here the poem shows its underlying complexity, developing the image of the snake to show more than one aspect.

A second way to interpret the shift of tone in the last quatrain is that it refers to the dual nature of living things. Throughout most of the poem, the snake is described in friendly terms, but at the end the snake’s threatening aspect is revealed; the speaker describes the tightening chest and icy chills upon seeing one. Of course, from the beginning, the reader may be thinking about the slithery or venomous qualities of snakes that bring dread to most people. At the end, then, the reader is able to understand the speaker’s anxiety when confronted with a snake. Readers can readily identify with the speaker, who is both intrigued and repelled by the snake. It is both threatening and non-threatening, as are most living things. Wisdom comes from understanding both aspects of the snake and, by extension, the dual nature of all creatures. In fact, Dickinson hints at the dual nature of human beings by assuming a male voice when she writes in the middle stanza of her “boyhood.”

Dickinson’s use of the word “rides” in the second line also connotes duality. While the most obvious meaning of the word is emotionally neutral (the snake riding the grass in the same way a person would ride a horse), the word can also mean “harassing” or “irritating relentlessly.” A careful reader may conclude that, although the grass is not harmed by the snake’s presence, it is helpless under the snake’s passing and is, in fact, temporarily ruffled. While not meaningful on a literal level, the grass’s powerlessness to respond to the snake has implications on a metaphorical level.

Dickinson’s nature poetry has retained its popularity because of its ability to use natural events and images to lead the reader to new insights. The snake’s movement through the grass, which returns to its original state after the snake has passed, can be read as a metaphor for people’s movements through life. People make decisions and carry out acts that make a difference or create a change, but such change is often temporary. Dickinson’s point is not that life is futile, but rather that the snake gets what it needs from the grass without destroying it. Further, there is a lesson about the world’s return to order. Although the snake parts the grass, the grass returns to its intended state afterwards. The use of the word “rides” to describe the snake’s movement is intriguing because it is unusual, and because it conjures parallel images, such as a fish swimming through water or a bird flying across the sky. In each case, the medium through which the object moves is not destroyed. Dickinson’s technique is subtle, but noteworthy. By introducing metaphorical language early in the poem, she encourages the reader to look beyond the immediate image to a larger pattern.

Dickinson also makes her imagery universal by not naming her subject. The word “snake” does not appear in the poem; although the reader is certain of the subject’s identity, every mention of the snake (“fellow,” “spotted shaft,” “it”) is non-specific. The speaker seems to have taken an assortment of recalled images of the snake and generalized them before beginning the poem. Barbara Seib Ingold of Explicator especially admired Dickinson’s descriptions of the snake’s attributes (“narrow,” “spotted shaft,” like a “Whip lash / Unbraiding in the Sun,”), and use of “s” sounds (“Grass,” “His notice sudden is,” “The Grass divides as with a comb,” “Have passed, I thought, a Whip lash,” “When stooping to secure it”), to convey the snake’s identity. The poem’s language conveys that it is about something more than a single snake, and even about something more than snakes.

“A Narrow Fellow in the Grass” was written in about 1865, by which time poets had been writing about nature for a very long while. Although some nature poetry is trite and unoriginal, great poets, such as William Wordsworth, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Emily Dickinson, were able to maintain the appropriate spirit, energy, and function of such poetry. By providing interesting, familiar, and well-written descriptions, these poets show their readers the wonders of nature, which is much more effective and memorable than simply telling about them.

Source: Jennifer Bussey, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale Group, 2001. Bussey holds a Master’s degree in Interdisciplinary Studies and a Bachelor’s degree in English Literature. She is an independent writer specializing in literature.

Nature's Contradictions and Mysteries

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Dickinson composed over five hundred poems that examined the relationship between man and nature, a select few of which are categorized as anti-transcendentalist. This means a selection of her nature poems deals with ideas that are in direct opposition of transcendentalist poets, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and David Thoreau, who believed one could achieve a spiritual connection with nature. Dickinson departed from what she thought to be a simplistic view of nature to show that nature will remain forever elusive from any real under- standing or interpretation. Her unique ideas are represented most succinctly with “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass.”

When the poem was published, Dickinson was tackling a well-worn literary subject. She certainly wasn’t the first poet to explore nature in her work. By 1860, the subject of nature had been explored for hundreds of years. However, she succeeded in breathing new life into a tired concept. Ralph Waldo Emerson was a direct influence on Dickinson; however, she did not follow in his transcendental footsteps. Emerson put forth ideas and theories in his work Nature that proposed nature is not a mere commodity, but rather a path to divine truth. He truly believed he could uncover the real purpose and meaning of the natural world. Fellow friend and poet Thoreau also believed that by studying and exploring nature, one could find a moral illumination and discover divine truths. Together, they created the transcendental movement, which was exalted by some and criticized by others for its perceived criticisms of the Christian church.

While the transcendental poetry movement greatly affected the American literary world, Dickinson turned those ideas on its head by introducing a deep skepticism for the sentimentality that permeated the poetry in that movement. In addition, Dickinson lived an isolated life, surrounded by the natural world, giving her an opportunity to form her revolutionary perspective. Even though Dickinson did subscribe to a transcendental philosophy in some of her work, evidenced by poems that explored the mystical connection between man and nature, she took the idea one step further and created a doctrine that celebrated the unknowable mysteries of nature and therefore contradicted Emerson’s theories.

“A Narrow Fellow in the Grass” asserts that while it is possible to be a part of nature, humans are inevitably outsiders who are allowed to observe it, but never understand its secrets. Dickinson did not randomly choose the snake as an emblem of nature. Rather, the snake, which is ripe with biblical references, is used to symbolize the idea that nature is capable of betrayal. The poem begins by placing the narrator in a field where he suddenly happens upon a snake making its way through the grass. The line, “You may have met Him—did you not?,” implies that the sight of a snake will occasionally occur when one wishes to enjoy what nature has to offer. The snake rides on the ground with ease, highlighting its rightful place in the natural world. However, the snake moves quickly and divides the grass “as with a comb.” The grass “closes at your feet / And opens further on,” thus mirroring the elusive quality of nature. Just as a snake only allows a mere glimpse of itself as it makes its way through the grass, nature, too, only reveals a part of itself to those who wish to know it. The next lines, “He likes a Boggy Acre / A Floor to cool for Corn,” also reveals that the snake has access to and even finds pleasure in places too barren for other forms of life. Dickinson is ascribing a certain amount of superiority to the snake by saying it inhabits places the narrator will never know or understand.

The narrator in the poem then recalls a time when he was just a boy who walked barefoot in the field. By walking barefoot, the boy makes himself closer to nature but also more vulnerable to it. Dickinson seems to be saying that no matter how close the boy in the poem gets to nature, he will never be admitted into its spiritual realm. This point hits home in the following lines: “I more than once at Noon / Have passed, I thought, a Whip lash / Unbraiding in the sun.” Because the boy perceives the snake to be a type of toy, at first, he believes he can participate or play with nature. However, the boy learns quickly that the closer he gets to the snake and, consequently, to nature, the more it eludes his grasp. As the boy bends down to “secure it / It wrinkled, and was gone.” The frustration that exists in the ability to capture or touch the snake alludes to nature’s indifference toward humans. The snake’s actions, like nature, are unpredictable. Nature exists in its own world. It’s cyclical, persistent, and stops for no one. It does not care whether or not it reveals its secrets to man. In fact, it has a distinct lack of conscience, and it probably prefers to retain its mysteries because therein lies nature’s power.

As the poem continues, the narrator announces, somewhat proudly, that he is a friend of nature: “Several of Nature’s People / I know, and they know me.” This is a naïve statement to make because, in reality, the narrator can never “know” nature. At this point in the work, the narrator seems to be in a state of denial, as if he is trying to convince nature that he is a friend that can be trusted with its secrets. This idea is also indicated in the title of the poem. Calling the snake a fellow is not only an attempt to reduce the snake to anthropomorphism, but it also implies a certain amount of familiarity with the creature when, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The narrator even goes so far as to say, “I feel for them [nature’s creatures] a transport / Of cordiality.” However, the narrator’s generosity is a moot point as nature is clearly not interested in taking the time to accept his offer. In addition, the word “transport” is indicative of the constant change and mobility that is at the core of nature.

The last stanza of the poem further reveals the narrator’s perspective. For the first time in the work, an element of fear is introduced. Up until this point, the narrator tried to capture or tame the spirit of the snake by turning it into a civilized, even friendly, creature. The tone of the poem also serves to startle the reader. Up until the last stanza, the work feels light and airy, as if Dickinson meant to celebrate the natural world. The abrupt change in tone at the end of the poem highlights how the narrator’s instinctual feelings betray him, and the reader goes through an emotional transition as well. All of a sudden, the reader, like the narrator, senses great danger. While the narrator would like to be a friend to nature, he cannot help but fear the sight of the snake and acknowledge its potential evil. It is common knowledge that the snake has the potential to inflict harm with its poison. In addition, a snake, because of its physical structure, can make a quick, unanticipated attack at any time, thus destroying the narrator’s life and permanently ending his relationship with nature.

The narrator is unable to deny his fear because of his body’s intense physiological changes. His feelings of terror are represented by “a tighter breathing” and a chill to the bone. It is further revealed that the narrator has always had these feeling when he encounters a snake. This statement implies that the narrator has been plagued by nature’s inconsistencies all his life. Even if the narrator is accompanied by one or more friends, he is not able to abate his feelings of terror upon meeting a snake. The consistency of fear insinuates that the narrator is in a constant struggle with the mysteries of nature. He desperately wishes to uncover nature’s secrets and continues to attempt to do so but fails to succeed in his mission. The narrator must face the reality of his situation as he can no longer pretend to be one with nature. Ultimately, he’s an outsider who must give up the fantasy and keep a certain distance from nature. Ironically, if the narrator were to succeed in capturing the snake, he might be bitten and meet his demise. This idea implies that the closer one gets to nature, the closer one gets to death. Dickinson further confirms her anti-transcendentalist feelings by addressing the issue of mortality. Paul Ferlazzo believes that while romantic poet Walt Whitman believed death signaled unity with nature because his body would be buried in the dirt and then renewed, Dickinson thought that death signaled a complete disconnection with nature and, therefore, the end of her relationship with it. However, by closing her struggle with its mysteries, Dickinson may finally achieve a kind of freedom that was unattainable in life.

Source: Michele Drohan, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale Group, 2001. Drohan is a professional editor and writer who specializes in classic and contemporary literature.


Critical Overview