Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 428

This is a poem about making a journey into nature, one of the characteristic themes of American literature. According to Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau—two members of the Transcendental movement in American literature, with whom Dickinson has frequently been compared—such an excursion into nature could put human beings in contact with the higher laws of the universe. Dickinson’s poem offers both an exploration and a critique of this view. Hers is a poem about coming into contact with nature—moving from a distance to proximity with nature—but more important, it is a poem which contrasts the perceptions of nature from a distance with the reality of nature experienced at first hand.

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Although the poem begins with an Emersonian view of nature as accessible to human understanding, it moves from the perception of the snake as a familiar acquaintance to the snake as something which can freeze the speaker with terror. The poem recounts the dissolution of the speaker’s sense of ease and familiarity while in nature. The startling encounter with the snake, in fact, evokes his need to assert and reaffirm a sense of connection to the natural world. His assertion of a knowledge of “Nature’s People” indicates his desire for a personified nature that he can know. In short, the speaker needs to believe that nature can still function for him—as it did for other Transcendentalists—as the means for “transport” to some higher yet friendly realm: “I feel for them a transport/ of cordiality.”

This statement stands in the poem, however, only as the speaker’s attempt to reassure himself because nothing else in the encounter with the snake supports the assertion. On the contrary, the central incident in the poem—the bewildering and frightening meeting with the snake—reaffirms with terrifying certainty nature’s true relation to the speaker. Rather than a familiar “Fellow” whose recurrent presence can calm, reassure, and keep one company, nature in some of its manifestations plays an alarming game with human beings, often “Unbraiding” or unraveling their grip on reality. Nature’s inhabitants appear and disappear suddenly—leaving the observer both terrified (“tighter breathing”) and chillingly empty (“Zero at the Bone”) of whatever comforting notions about nature he is able to sustain when nature remains at a distance. By the end of the poem, the implications of the “Whip lash” metaphor become clear: the snake as whiplash represents finally both something in nature capable of violence and pain and the scar left on human consciousness by nature’s sudden, violent act.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 603

Appearances and Reality
“A Narrow Fellow in the Grass” is built around the contrast between what appears to be and what is. Dickinson wrote several “riddle” type poems, where she uses an extended metaphor to compare her subject to something, without coming right out and telling the reader what she is describing. Each stanza offers “clues” in the form of imagery, vivid word pictures such as the “spotted shaft” that divides the grass “as a comb.”

Dickinson describes her object—in this case a snake—by hinting at what it resembles. The speaker falsely recognizes the object, taking it for something else. There is a split between what it appears to be and what it actually is. This theme of appearances versus reality comes through most strongly in the fourth stanza. The speaker is recalling time spent walking through the grass barefoot. The speaker—a young boy—spots the snake in the grass, but perceives it to be the lash of a whip: “I more than once at Noon / Have passed, I thought, a Whip lash / Unbraiding in the Sun.” But just as the speaker reaches down to grab the Whip, he discovers it to be a snake, which slithers away: “It wrinkled, and was gone.”

What makes Dickinson’s poetic technique interesting is that she avoids words we would normally associate with snakes, such as “slither,” “scaly,” “slide,” “coil,” or the traditional descriptions of snakes as evil, demonic, or Satan-like. She chooses instead unlikely images, calling the snake a “fellow” who “rides” instead of slithers, who “wrinkles” away. She makes the reader conscious of language and forces him or her to imagine something in a way that one would not intuitively imagine it. In this way, she calls into question what reality is, and how much appearance plays a part in what we imagine to be real.

Fear
“A Narrow Fellow in the Grass” starts out with an image that seems to evoke the opposite of fear. The “fellow” in the first line hardly seems fearful, especially since the word “fellow” evokes a feeling of familiarity and a sense of ease. By calling the snake a “fellow,” Dickinson almost gives it a personality. It seems far from the imposing, fearful creature the snake has traditionally been thought to embody.

As the poem proceeds, the imagery continues to paint a picture of the snake as a harmless creature, one of “nature’s people,” with whom the speaker is well-acquainted. The snake is again called a “fellow” in the final stanza, but this time, the context is different. The speaker is revealing his fear of the snake. Meeting this creature, this “narrow fellow,” either “attended or alone” causes “tighter breathing.” It causes the speaker to feel “zero at the bone,” or to be chilled to the bone. The final stanza describes an irrational fear. Literary critic Barbara Seib Ingold explains: “Irrational fears arise from what we do not understand; it is the many things one does not understand about a snake that add to one’s fear of snakes.”

Perhaps the speaker is thinking of the venomous bite of the snake, or of the mysterious habits of the snake. Often a creature associated with fear, and at times, evil, the snake has a curious place in history. We might say that “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass” is an exploration of fear, using the crea- ture of the snake as a catalyst for that fear. This poem shows fear to be a complex emotion—an emotion that exists in balance with comfort, as is suggested by the characterization the fearful snake as a “fellow.”

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