A Narrow Fellow in the Grass by Emily Dickinson

Most of Emily Dickinson’s poems center around the idea of death and the after-life. This poem, A Narrow Fellow in the Grass, however, focuses on the animal world. Dickinson assumes the position of a male speaker in this poem. A Narrow Fellow in the Grass itself does not reveal why she does this, but for some reason she speaks as a man remembering his boyhood encounter with a snake. This is one of the few poems that was published during Dickinson’s lifetime. It was not Dickinson herself that published her poem, but rather her sister in law. There is not evidence to suggest that Dickinson was upset at having this poem published, but we do know that in another poem entitled “Publication is the Auction” Dickinson reveals her belief that to make money off of her poetry would be to fornicate her soul. Perhaps this is why the majority of the poems published in Dickinson’s lifetime were sent to magazines and publishers by Dickinson’s family and friends, without her knowledge (Poetry Foundation).

 

A Narrow Fellow in the Grass Analysis

Stanza 1

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.

With the opening line of this stanza, the reader does not know who this narrow fellow is, but because Dickinson describes him as a “fellow” one can only assume that this is a skinny man lying in the grass. She claims that he “occasionally rides” but implies that he spends most of his time in the grass. The speaker does not go into detail about what the snake “rides”, but this description does give the reader the impression that she is speaking about a thin human being. The speaker claims that “his notice is sudden” suggesting that one notices him suddenly, and that he suddenly notices the presence of another. Then, when the speaker describes this narrow fellow as one who “dives as with a comb” and has “a spotted shaft”, the reader becomes aware that the speaker is not referring to a human being, but to a snake. With the first few lines, the speaker intended to trick the reader into picturing a human being, so that it comes as a shock when the reader realizes that A Narrow Fellow in the Grass is about a snake. Then the speaker says that the snake “closes at your feet”. The use of the word “your” here, brings the reader into this experience. Now the reader can picture a snake at his own feet, and can perhaps feel what the speaker herself has felt at this encounter with a snake. Once the snake has circled “your” feet, he slithers away.

 

Stanza 2

He likes a boggy acre,
A floor too cool for corn,
But 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.

In this stanza of A Narrow Fellow in the Grass, the speaker claims that the snake “likes a boggy acre”. In other words, he likes a soft, cool, swampy area in which to slither. He likes a cool floor and wet marshes. By using the word “like”, the speaker effectively personifies the snake. She has already called him a “fellow” and suggested that he “occasionally rides” thereby giving him human qualities from the start. Now, he is a snake who prefers a certain type of home. This further personifies the snake. In the third line of this stanza, the speaker reveals that he is a man who remembers being a small boy. This reveals to the readers that in this particular case, the speaker and the author are not one and the same. Rather, the author chooses to write from the perspective of a male speaker who remembers encountering a snake as he ran barefoot through the grass. The speaker continues to describe this experience, saying that it happened “more than once” and usually it occurred “at noon”. The speaker remembers being a young boy, and stooping to see this creature at his feet that looked like a “whip lash”. But when he bent down to pick it up, “it wrinkled and was gone”. Just as the young boy was about to grasp this creature, it disappeared.

Read more poetry analysis:   Heart, we will forget him! By Emily Dickinson

 

Stanza 3

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 stanza 3 of A Narrow Fellow in the Grass, the speaker reveals that he knows “nature’s people”. The speaker has already personified the snake in many ways. In this stanza, he now claims that the snake is one of “nature’s people”. The speaker not only claims that he knows natures people, but also says “and they know me”. This suggests that the speaker has a connection with animal life that most people do not have. He claims that he knows the animals, and the animals know him. Then, he claims that he shares feelings with the nature’s people, the animals, of which the snake is one. He claims that he feels the cordiality that they feel. This gives the snake further human qualities by suggesting that the animal actually had the ability to express human cordiality.

Perhaps this is what was happening when the snake approached the speaker to greet him, and then slithered away. The word “but” in the fifth line of this stanza suggests the the speaker does not feel the same way about the snake as he may feel about other animals. Even though he knows the animals, and the animals know him, he claims that he has never once met a snake without experiencing “tighter breathing and zero to the bone”. The reader, then, can picture being out in a field, and seeing a snake at his feet. The reader can identify with the speaker by imagining the tightness of breath that would come with meeting a snake in the wild. The speaker does not give the readers any inclination as to whether or not this particular snake was dangerous.

However, most readers can relate to the feeling of fear that would come upon them if they met a snake at their feet in the grass. Even if this particular snake was not a dangerous one, it is often hard to decipher snake kinds at first glance. They are so quick that it is often difficult to tell. In this particular case, the speaker remembers being a young boy and stooping to catch the snake, but it was gone before he could. It is hard to tell when the fear of snakes came upon the speaker, but it would appear as though it was sometime after his first boyhood encounter with a snake that he tried to catch. The speaker leaves the reason for this shift in feeling open for interpretation.

Perhaps the boy later discovered that it had indeed been a dangerous snake, and that he could have lost his life. Perhaps he later heard of a friend or relative who suffered a poisonous snake bite. The speaker does not say, but the reader can certainly infer that after that first encounter with the snake, the speaker never again met one without a cold empty feeling in his tightening chest. The use of the word “zero” in this last line most likely refers to “nothing” and gives the reader the feeling of emptiness that the speaker experiences when he encounters a snake. The reader could infer that this emptiness means that the speaker has since lost a loved one to a snake bite, and therefore feels cold and empty inside when he encounters one. For one reason or another, the speaker cannot feel the same connection with the snake that he feels with other animals.

Works Cited:

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4 Comments

  1. Riya Diwan November 27, 2016
  2. Apoorva Shukla October 20, 2018
  3. Dale McIntyre September 4, 2019
    • mm Lee-James Bovey September 7, 2019

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