A narrow Fellow in the Grass
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
But never met this Fellow
Attended, or alone
Without a tighter breathing
And Zero at the Bone--*
One of only a handful of her poems published during her lifetime, "A Narrow Fellow in the Grass" has always been one of Emily Dickinson's best known and most admired poems. When the poem was published without Dickinson's knowledge in the Springfield Daily Republican (Feb. 14, 1866), it was entitled "The Snake." If no one has questioned the accuracy of the uncalled-for answer that this title gives to the riddle that the poem can be construed to pose, neither has anyone bothered to guess at just what sort of snake the poet had in mind, for there is not much description to go on--only that the creature is "spotted" and that it is large enough to make (to the human eye) noticeable changes in the grass when it "rides" by. Since, to the poet, the snake looks like "a Whip lash / Unbraiding in the Sun," it need not be any bigger or more unusual than a good-sized garter snake. Still, especially when one comes upon such a snake unexpectedly, the experience is imposing enough to shorten one's breath and to chill one to the bone.
Years ago, Daniel Hoffman called Dickinson's "Zero at the Bone" the finest image in American poetry. And that riveting image is not the only excellence in this poem. Take, for instance, the description of the creature as a "narrow fellow." The adjective "narrow" is hardly unusual, but welded to "fellow" (which in this context is equally common), it takes on a visual-kinesthetic meaning. Visually, this noun-cum-attribute recreates, in a sense, the very movement of the snake as it "rides" along the ground. Notice that the word "narrow" opens out--that is, it stretches like a "shaft" or an arrow and ends with an o--and then the word "fellow" closes up ("wrinkle[s]"). The very size of the letters--all letters of a small size in the first word and an organized sequence of letters of a small and a taller size in the second word--orchestrate the poet's perception of the way this creature makes its way around. In fact, this orchestration extends to the entire first line of the poem, as we can see both in the published version and in the holograph manuscript: "A narrow Fellow in the Grass."
Elsewhere in the poem, such orchestration works just as well, if differently. For instance, when the snake looks to the poet much like a "Whip lash / Unbraiding in the Sun," the image is both aural and visual. If, when stationary, the creature looks as if it were "unbraiding," we are to recall the aptness of describing the moving snake as the lashing out of a whip.
Orchestration is at work in the final stanza of the poem, where the word "Fellow" returns for the first time since being introduced in the opening line. Here, however, it is not the locomotion of the snake that is orchestrated but the "clos[ing]" up--the "wrinkl[ing]," if you will--of the poet herself, along with the "tighter breathing" that attends that cold contraction at the bone. And then, in the poem's final fine, the "Fellow" makes its last appearance but this time covertly. It stands upright in the printed version in the snakelike initial letter (visually, a reversed S) of the word "Zero." In the manuscript, the graphic effect is even more unmistakable, for the snakelike appearance of the Z is itself mirror-imaged by the (diminished) letter that follows it.
* Reprinted by permission of the publishers and the Trustees of Amherst College from THE POEMS OF EMILY DICKINSON, Thomas H. Johnson, ed., Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Copyright (C) 1951, 1955, 1979, 1983 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.
1. The Poems of Emily Dickinson, ed. Thomas H. Johnson (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard U P, 1955) 2:711-12.
2. The Manuscript Books of Emily Dickinson, ed. R. W. Franklin (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard U P, 1981) 2:1137-39.