The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“A narrow Fellow in the Grass” (the title is not Emily Dickinson’s, since she did not title her poems) is a short poem of thirty-two lines divided into five stanzas. The poem begins and ends with two balanced stanzas of four lines each, which surround a central stanza of eight lines. Dickinson’s poems appear to many readers to be written in free verse; the underlying metrical structure of her poetry, however, incorporates the traditional pattern of English hymnody: alternating lines of eight syllables and six syllables. Although Dickinson employs this traditional metrical pattern as a model in her verse, she frequently violates and strains against its conventions.

The poem is written in the first person from the point of view of an adult male (“Yet when a Boy, and Barefoot—/ I”). The poem thus uses the voice of a persona—a speaker other than the poet—who initiates a cordial relationship with the audience, addressing the reader directly: “You may have met Him—did you not.”

The poem is structured to relate the speaker’s experience in encountering nature, specifically in the form of a snake. The speaker begins by characterizing the snake in friendly, civilized terms: The snake is a “Fellow” who “rides” in the grass, a familiar presence that even the reader has encountered. Again, in the second stanza, the snake appears to act in a civilized manner as it “divides” the grass “as with a comb.” Despite the...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

One of the most important poetic devices at work in the poem is the tone: the speaker’s attitude toward the subject being described, the snake. The tone is deceptively simple and light, referring to the snake as a “Fellow.” As the speaker introduces the reader to the snake in the same way that one might introduce an acquaintance, he constructs a metaphor, a way of talking about the snake as if it were a jaunty “Fellow” who “rides” about, a friendly sort whom one surely has “met” in the course of ordinary, everyday life.

The effect of this light, off-handed tone together with the matter-of-fact narration and the metaphorical construction of the snake as an ordinary, civilized “Fellow” is to lead the reader into a situation in which he or she can be taken off guard just as the speaker is unnerved by his encounter with the snake. Indeed, immediately following the initial three-line, polite introduction to the snake, Dickinson jars the reader with one of her characteristic transformations of language: “You may have met Him—did you not/ His notice sudden is.” At first glance, one reads these lines as a question followed by a statement about the snake’s abrupt appearance: it gives “sudden notice.” Dickinson herself insisted, however, that the third and fourth lines of this first stanza were to be read as one statement. Reading as Dickinson intended, then, the verb “is” becomes transformed into a noun with “sudden” as its adjective, and when the...

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Historical Context

(Poetry for Students)

Born in 1830, poet Emily Dickinson lived during one of the most tumultuous and—at the same time—booming periods in American history. At...

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Literary Style

(Poetry for Students)

Dickinson constructed the great majority of her poems around the short stanza forms and poetic rhyme schemes of familiar nursery rhymes and...

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Compare and Contrast

(Poetry for Students)

  • 1800s: In America, white women are not allowed to vote, own property or divorce their husbands, and until the Civil War, black...

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Topics for Further Study

(Poetry for Students)

Dickinson describes a snake in this poem without ever calling it by name, but also without pretending that its identity is supposed to be a...

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Media Adaptations

(Poetry for Students)

Julie Harris reads selections by Dickinson in the audiocassette Poems and Letters of Emily Dickinson. Produced by Caedom, 1960.


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What Do I Read Next?

(Poetry for Students)

Elizabeth Barrett Browning was one of Emily Dickinson’s chief influences. The collection Complete Works of Elizabeth Barrett...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Poetry for Students)

Bennett, Paula, Emily Dickinson: Woman Poet, University of Iowa Press, 1990.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo,...

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(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Boruch, Marianne. “Dickinson Descending.” The Georgia Review 40 (1986): 863-877.

Brantley, Richard E. Experience and Faith: The Late-Romantic Imagination of Emily Dickinson. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Carruth, Hayden. “Emily Dickinson’s Unexpectedness.” Ironwood 14 (1986): 51-57.

Eberwein, Jane Donahue. An Emily Dickinson Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998.

Ferlazzo, Paul, ed. Critical Essays on Emily Dickinson. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1984.

Grabher, Gudrun, Roland Hagenbüchle,...

(The entire section is 147 words.)