A reading of Dickinson’s snake poem by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘A narrow Fellow in the Grass’ is the 986th poem in Emily Dickinson’s Complete Poems. It’s among her most famous and often-anthologised poems, so a few words of analysis may help us to get to the bottom of what the ‘narrow Fellow in the Grass’ means and why Dickinson is writing about him.
A narrow Fellow in the Grass
Occasionally rides –
You may have met him – did you not
His notice sudden is –
The Grass divides as with a Comb –
A spotted shaft is seen –
And then it closes at your feet
And opens further on –
He likes a Boggy Acre
A Floor too cool for Corn –
Yet when a Boy, and Barefoot –
I more than once at Noon
Have passed, I thought, a Whip lash
Unbraiding in the Sun
When stooping to secure it
It wrinkled, and was gone –
Several of Nature’s People
I know, and they know me –
I feel for them a transport
Of cordiality –
But never met this Fellow
Attended, or alone
Without a tighter breathing
And Zero at the Bone –
In summary, the ‘narrow Fellow in the Grass’ is a snake, as the phrase ‘in the Grass’ suggests, summoning the idiom ‘a snake in the grass’. The snake is seen from a child’s-eye view. The snake appears and disappears suddenly, and is apt to be mistaken for other things (e.g. a whip), and eludes our understanding. The snake moving through the grass divides and flattens it as though it’s hair that’s been combed, and is slithering away as soon as the speaker notices it. Whilst the speaker is familiar with many creatures in the natural world, and gets on with them just fine, he (we learn the speaker was a ‘Boy’ in the eleventh line) has never encountered a snake without being rendered short of breath and feeling a chill to his very bone, even when in the safe company of other people. This ‘tighter breathing’ suggests constriction – much like a snake (a boa constrictor, for instance) tightening around its prey and squeezing the life out of it.
Given that the poem is partly about something being mistaken for something else, it’s remarkable just how deftly Emily Dickinson makes us as readers mistake one word for another. So not ‘Upbraiding’ – nothing so indignant – but ‘Unbraiding’, in a curious neologism. Not ‘stopping to secure it’, but ‘stooping’ to do so – but in doing so, inviting us to stop and do a double-take, and secure the meaning of Dickinson’s line. Similarly, ‘Whip lash’ invites two readings: the ‘lash’ is both the name for the flexible part of the whip, and for the action which the whip performs – a ‘sudden’ action, just like the appearance of the snake itself (‘Its notice sudden is’).
It’s worth analysing such features because it is this intriguing use of linguistic double-takes which makes ‘A narrow Fellow in the Grass’ such a memorable description of a snake. As so often in her poetry, Emily Dickinson manages to convey the essence of the creature (as she does elsewhere with the cat), its movements, its manner, its appearance, in ways which strike us as at once idiosyncratic and strangely accurate.
If you want to own all of Dickinson’s wonderful poetry in a single volume, you can: we recommend the Faber edition of her Complete Poems. You can discover more about her work with our analysis of her poems ‘I cannot live with you’, ‘Because I could not stop for Death’, and ‘My Life had stood – a loaded Gun‘.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.