The Poem

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“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.

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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 snake’s cultured appearance, the first two stanzas introduce the snake’s ability to appear and disappear suddenly.

In the third stanza—the central and longest of the poem—the snake’s actions become increasingly unpredictable and inexplicable. The speaker notes the snake’s preference for “a Boggy Acre,” a place “too cool” even for “Corn,” let alone human beings, then recounts a childhood incident in which he bent down and attempted to “secure” a snake but it escaped him: “It wrinkled, and was gone.” What first appears to be some tool or toy (“a Whip lash”) for the child to use or play with eludes not only human control but also human perception and attainment.

The fourth stanza of the poem finds the speaker abruptly back in the present, asserting—again in the polite language of refined society—his connections with the realm of nature: “Several of Nature’s People/ I know, and they know me.” The speaker insists that his feelings for these inhabitants of nature are ones characterized by “cordiality.” This assertion, however, is contradicted in the final stanza by the speaker’s depiction of the effect on him each time he encounters the snake: chilling terror (“a tighter breathing/ And Zero at the Bone”). What begins as a poem ostensibly about a snake becomes, in this way, a poem about the effect of an encounter with a snake—and perhaps by extension with nature itself—on an individual human being.

Forms and Devices

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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 speaker apparently asks the reader, “Did you not notice his sudden is?” he assaults the reader’s sense of ease and familiarity with language just as the snake has assaulted his sense of being at home in nature. This wrenching of language from its ordinary functions and the emphasis on the poem as an experience for the reader rather than as a preached message are two important characteristics of Dickinson’s poetic technique which make her one of the first modern poets.

The progression of metaphors and images which the speaker constructs to describe the snake reflects the speaker’s attempts to deal with his encounters with the snake. Beginning as a civilized “Fellow” who neatly divides the grass “as with a Comb,” the snake, by the end of the second stanza and the beginning of the third, has become a “spotted shaft.” The speaker relates that this ominously threatening object—far from being a civilized companion—prefers to reside in “a Boggy Acre,” a place which resists human cultivation.

The narration in the central stanza of a childhood encounter completes the transformation of the snake from the personified “Fellow” to an object. Now the snake is perceived to be first a “Whip lash” and then some ungraspable “it” which engages in a game of hide-and-seek with the speaker.

At the beginning of the fifth stanza, the speaker retreats to his personification of nature’s inhabitants, asserting knowledge of and connections with “Nature’s People” and the “cordiality” he feels for them. The sixth and final stanza, however, contrasts his sense of ease in nature with his feelings of terror upon meeting the snake: “tighter breathing/ And Zero at the Bone.”

Even as the repeated s sounds and the serpentine long and short line lengths in the poem’s opening seven lines usher the reader into an encounter with the snake, so the varied o sounds of the central stanza—boggy, floor, too, cool, corn, boy, barefoot, noon, gone—give way to the full force of the repeated o rhymes which arrive at the end of the poem, blow by blow, with the horror of the snake: fellow, alone, zero, bone.

Historical Context

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Born in 1830, poet Emily Dickinson lived during one of the most tumultuous and—at the same time—booming periods in American history. At once turbulent and idyllic, the mid-nineteenth century saw the flowering of literature, along with the push towards creating a unique American literary identity. But it also saw a society on the brink of violence with the increasing debates over slavery and the continued encroachment upon and displacement of Native Americans. Ultimately, the country became embroiled in a massive Civil War, tearing it apart and creating a legacy of strained race relations for future generations.

Because she was secluded in her Amherst, Massachusetts, home, readers often falsely assume Dickinson was disconnected from the events of the day. On the contrary, Dickinson was an active reader, followed current events and was very much aware of the world around her. Dickinson scholars Peggy McIntosh and Ellen Louise Hart state: “We know that Dickinson was a cosmopolitan and eclectic reader. Her letters indicate that she read newspapers and periodicals, following closely local and national events and reading contemporary poetry and fiction as soon as it came into print.” Although very few of her poems were published during her lifetime, Dickinson was a committed poet, writing, revising, sending poems to friends, reading other poets’ works as soon as they came into print.

The publishing world was booming during the nineteenth century, with an increase in both literacy and printed material. According to literary critic Paul Lauter, in the first third of the nineteenth century, the number of newspapers in the country increased from about 200 to over 1200. The number of novels in print also increased, with “popular” type novels leading the way, usually appearing serialized in weekly or monthly papers and magazines. Not only was the country expanding westward, more people were becoming literate. Lauter states: “It was in the early nineteenth century that writing first became an available profession, not only for white gentlemen, but for others.” While Dickinson did not gain fame as a poet in her own lifetime as many of her contemporaries such as Whitman and Poe did, her poetic sensibilities and feelings of fragmentation were integral to nineteenth-century literature as it stood on the eve of the modern world.

America was still a very young country in the early part of the nineteenth century. As a relatively new nation, it was important for America to develop a sense of identity separate from England. Thomas Jefferson espoused an agrarian society, a nation of independent farmers; this was more plausible in eighteenth-century America. But the urban population continued to grow in the 1800s as more and more immigrants came to the shores of America in search of a better life. America needed its own identity on the world stage.

While there were distinct literary and intellectual voices in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—poets Phillis Wheatley and Anne Brad-street, the writings of Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, Thomas Paine, and the stories of Hannah Webster Foster and Charles Brockden Brown, to name a few—America as of yet had no strong literary tradition it could truly call its own. Until, that is, the “flowering of literature,” beginning in New England with poets William Cullen Bryant, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Walt Whitman. The topics they wrote about ranged from the celebration of American history to the praise of nature. Another important literary and intellectual movement of the nineteenth century was transcendentalism, with writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and Henry David Thoreau discoursing on nature and spirituality, on “transcending” the modern world by looking to nature. Emily Dickinson was very much aware of the literary boom; her style was shaped by the poetry of the day and, at the same time, was highly unique.

Literary energy was not limited to New England and intellectual circles of Harvard and Cambridge. There were many distinct voices and literary trends. The novel came into full force in the middle part of the century, with best-sellers such as Susan Warner’s Wide, Wide World and Maria Cummins’ The Lamplighter. Women’s texts, often labeled “sentimental novels” were increasingly popular, and Nathaniel Hawthorne was quoted as referring to the “damn mob of scribbling women.” Two interrelated issues, “the woman question” and the antislavery movement, achieved a great deal of momentum as white women and white and black anti-slavery activists teamed up to fight the dual oppressions of patriarchy and slavery. White and black women such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, Frances Harper, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Sojourner Truth fought for the liberation from women’s domestic sphere, where women were not allowed to vote, own property, or divorce their husbands, as well as the liberation from slavery, where women were held as chattel, forced to submit to their white masters. The nineteenth century was full of powerful rhetoric that lit readers and audiences on fire.

The mid-nineteenth century was a unique era. Along with strides made by white women and blacks was the continuous shameful treatment of Native Americans. The economy boomed, new inventions surfaced, cities grew, the world became more modern as the country became divided. Daily life became increasingly more fragmented as America moved away from the organic ideal of an agrarian society and towards a more urban one. This was Emily Dickinson’s world, and although we look to her as an eccentric of her time, she was still very much a product of that time.

Literary Style

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Dickinson constructed the great majority of her poems around the short stanza forms and poetic rhyme schemes of familiar nursery rhymes and Protestant hymns. “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass,” for instance, is written in six quatrains, or stanzas of four lines each, rhyming only in the second and fourth lines. Most, but not all, of the rhythms are iambic, meaning the poem has regularly recurring two-syllable segments, or feet, in which the first syllable is unstressed and the second syllable is stressed. The first two quatrains of the poem are laid out in the hymn meter called common meter, alternately eight and six syllables to the line. But Dickinson narrows the pattern thereafter to sevens and sixes, alternately seven and six syllables to the line.

Dickinson made many deviations from the conventional exact rhyme used by her poet contemporaries. “Alone/bone” in the final stanza is this poem’s single exact rhyme, with similar sounds in the stressed vowels and in subsequent vowels and consonants, but not in the consonants immediately preceding the stressed vowels. “Me/cordiality” in stanza five is a vowel rhyme, and the other end rhymes are half rhymes, also called imperfect rhymes, off rhymes or slant rhymes, as in “rides/is” where the rhyming vowels are followed by different consonants, or in “seen/on” and “sun/gone” where the stressed vowels are different, but followed by identical consonants.

Dickinson often used alliteration and other repeated vowel and consonant sounds within lines and across lines and stanzas as alternatives to formal rhyme. In this poem, for example, the repetition of the sound “s” suggests the slithering of a snake. Alliteration is used effectively in “Attended or alone” and “breathing/bone” in the final stanza. Note, too, the echoing consonant and vowel sounds in stanza three’s “A floor too cool for corn,” and the prevalence of the long “o” sound in the concluding stanza underscoring the word “zero.”

Compare and Contrast

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  • 1800s: In America, white women are not allowed to vote, own property or divorce their husbands, and until the Civil War, black women are held as chattel in slavery. The suffrage movement gains strength mid-century, especially after it joins with the anti-slavery movement. White and black women activists organize conventions—the most notable of which was the Seneca Falls Convention in 1849—where they deliver powerful speeches, drawing parallels between the enslavement of blacks and the domestic enslavement of white women. The ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment—which gives black men the right to vote—ultimately splits the civil rights movement from the women’s movement.

    1920: The Nineteenth Amendment grants white and black women the right to vote.

    1960s and 1970s: The women’s movement in the nineteenth century is known today as the first wave of feminism. In the 1960s and 70s, the second wave of feminism began, with such leaders as Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan and U.S. Representative Shirley Chisholm. Women fought to end discrimination, earn equal pay for equal work, and end feminine stereotypes which dictated to women their place was in the home.

    Today: Many feminists argue we are experiencing a third wave of feminism, with many younger women involved (hence, the popular phrase “girl power”). While both the first and second waves of feminism saw tremendous gains for women, feminists today are still fighting many of the same issues, namely an end to gender discrimination, violence against women, and negative stereotypes of women.

    1800s: When Emily Dickinson was writing in the mid-nineteenth century, American literature was still in the formative stages. American writers were trying to create a tradition of their own, separate from the British literary tradition. The early part of the century saw an increase in the printed word, with an explosion in poetry. “The flowering of New England”—as it is often called—was a more high-brow movement, appealing to the growing class of educated, middle-income Americans. But there had always been a steady stream of popular, or “low-brow,” literature in the form of stories published in periodicals and newspapers. As the century wore on, the division between high-brow and low-brow grew deeper. The best-selling novels and authors were not always the ones the majority of Americans were reading.

    Today: The divisions between high-brow and low-brow literature are still very much with us. We have an established “canon” of literary classics that appear on college syllabi and in grade school and high school curriculum. We also have a great deal of “popular” or best-selling literature (although some authors do manage to achieve best-seller status and a place in the canon). Still, popular types of literature such as Steven King, Danielle Steel, John Grisham, or the scores of romance, sci-fi, mystery or other novels are often looked down upon by more “serious” academic scholars. Much like in the nineteenth century, it is a flourishing market for popular writers, especially with the invention of the Web and the renewed interest in reading, with new bookstores and book groups popping up all the time.

Media Adaptations

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

Come Slowly Eden: A Portrait of Emily Dickinson is a play by Norman Rosten. Produced by Dramatists Play Service, 1967.

Magic Prison is a classical music adaptation, inspired by Emily Dickinson’s poems and letters. Produced by the Louisville Orchestra, 1971.

Glenda Jackson reads from Dickinson in the audiocassette The Mind of Emily Dickinson. Produced by Argo, 1977.

Emily Dickinson is included in Voices and Visions, produced by the New York Center for Visual History, 1988 which details the lives and poetry of thirteen major American poets.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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

Emerson, Ralph Waldo, Nature: An Essay and Lectures on the Times, H. G. Clarke, 1844.

Ferlazzo, Paul J., “Emily Dickinson,” in Twayne’s United States Authors Series Online, G. K. Hall & Co., 1999.

Ingold, Barbara Seib, “Dickinson’s ‘A Narrow Fellow,’” The Explicator, 1996, pp. 220–23.

Lauter, Paul, The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Volume One, Second Edition, edited by Paul Lauter, DC Heath and Company, 1994.

McIntosh, Peggy and Ellen Louise Hart, The Heath Anthology of American Literature, Volume One, Second Edition, edited by Paul Lauter, DC Heath and Company, 1994.

Monteiro, George, “Emily Dickinson’s ‘A Narrow Fellow in the Grass,’ ” The Explicator, 1992, 120–22.

Oates, Joyce Carol, “Dickinson Constructed Her Own Elusive Image,” Readings On Emily Dickinson, edited by David Bender, et al., Greenhaven, 1997.

Porter, David, “The Puzzling Idiom,” in Dickinson: The Modern Idiom, Harvard University Press, 1981, pp. 37–80.

Whicher, George Frisbie, “Literary Friends,” in This Was a Poet, Shoe String Press, 1980, pp. 113–33.

Wolff, Cynthia Griffin, Emily Dickinson, Knopf, 1986.

For Further Reading
Bender, David, et al., Readings on Emily Dickinson, Greenhaven, 1997. This collection offers various critical perspectives on Emily Dickinson’s life and poetry. Includes twenty different essays by various authors.

Dickinson, Emily, Final Harvest: Emily Dickinson’s Poems, edited by Thomas H. Johnson, Little, Brown, 1961. An extensive collection of Emily Dickinson’s poems. Also includes biographical information.

Krane, Paul, ed., Poetry of the American Renaissance, George Braziller Press, 1995. This anthology contains a wide spectrum of nineteenth- century American poets, from lesser known authors such as Lydia Sigourney to well-known authors such as Edgar Allen Poe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Longsworth, Polly, The World of Emily Dickinson: A Visual Biography, W. W. Norton, 1990. This visual biography is made up of an extensive collection of photographs and sketches from the life of Emily Dickinson, including pictures of Amherst, her home, her friends and family.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 147

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, and Cristanne Miller, ed. The Emily Dickinson Handbook. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998.

Juhasz, Suzanne, ed. Feminist Critics Read Emily Dickinson. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1983.

Kirk, Connie Ann. Emily Dickinson: A Biography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2004.

Lundin, Roger. Emily Dickinson and the Art of Belief. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 2004.

MacNeil, Helen. Emily Dickinson. New York: Pantheon Books, 1986.

Pollack, Vivian R. A Historical Guide to Emily Dickinson. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Vendler, Helen Hennessey. Poets Thinking: Pope, Whitman, Dickinson, Yeats. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004.

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