A narrow fellow in the grass - Emily Dickinson #
Dickinson never actually uses the word snake, to describe one of our most primal fears.
Snakes have always been a fascination for humans; prevalent in creation myths of primitive religions. In most they are associated with evil - death. The snake in the Garden of Eden myth tempted Eve to eat the apple from the Tree of Knowledge and so introduced the concept of sin, forcing Adam and Eve out of Paradise into hardsip.
Common sayings perpetuate vile connotations with “a snake in the grass”, “lower than a snake’s belly” and “Snakes and Ladders” – the snake a metaphor of failure or loss. More positive nuances come from Barry McKenzie’s “trouser snake” or Monty Python.
It is noteworthy that rather title the poem with the fear tingling cliche, “*a snake in the grass”, *Dickinson uses the less frightening - almost familiar “narrow fellow” to allay our fears.
As part of Dickinson’s nature poems, this poem is fuller, more coherent and personal. The use of personal pronouns, ( third person) “him”, (second) “you”, and (first) “I” all provide an inclusive warm and intimate tone. The setting is immediately recognisable and familiar. The noun “fellow” is casual, colloquial and accepting. We are encouraged to feel close, to and identify with the snake as one of us through the direct address, personification of “he” and “him” as well the rhetorical question; “—did you not.”
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 child, and barefoot,
I more than once, at morn,
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.
The snake is described variously at a distance – “in the grass” “divides as a comb”, a spotted shaft”, “a whip-lash”. The sibilant sounds could echo the hiss of a snake.
Dickinson finds an affinity with “nature’s other people” - another personification of creatures but also realises that nature can turn threatening. So while she belongs, she also feels alienated. As in other poems, the dichotomy of affinity and repulsion are evident here. Nature can be benevolent, but also pitiless and sinister. Much of the tension in the poem derives from our latent fear of snakes.
Though not a pantheist, she may have closely identified with the “druids”, thought to be translated to “wisdom of the trees”, an Earth-based spirituality connecting with the energy of the land, and with animals, plants and natural philosophy.
Initially we are lulled into sense of communion with nature as the snake appears harmless, however as the poem progresses, the snake’s presence becomes more ominous and sinister. By the end fear is evoked by “Without a tighter breathing,/And zero at the bone.” - we become paralysed.
Allegorically, snakes symbolise evil; the temptation of the Biblical Eve, or archetypes as a phallic symbol, while literally a lethal danger because of their surreptitious venomous bites. As in other poems, her strong religious background comes to the fore in a liberal use of Biblical allusions.
Some critics find this a masculine poem - the masculine pronouns, “he, him” which excludes the feminine. Dickinson was renown as a youthful “tomboy” and occasionally adopts an androgynous persona. This may indicate she is a product of a patriarchal society.
A Narrow Fellow in The Grass turns out to be a very personal but child-like wonder poem of a persona in tune with nature but also aware of its inherent dangers.