Dickinson Poem 986 Analysis Essay

One of the best-known Dickinson nature poems, poem 986 is more remarkable for its execution and technique than its content. The narrator unexpectedly encounters a snake in tall marsh grass. Far from tempting the narrator, as the serpent tempted Eve, it induces fear, panting, and a sudden chill. The first eleven lines describe the snake in a personified, almost amiable way. He sometimes “rides” through the grass, parting it like a comb does hair. Yet, when plain sight threatens to betray its exact location, the grass “closes at your feet/ And opens further on—.”

The narrator of this poem is male, perhaps because boys rather than girls would be more likely to walk through marshes; however, the narrator’s sex also underscores the phallic implications of this symbol. If one prefers to see this sexual imagery, it is possible to cite the sexual association of such words and phrases as “Whip lash,” “tighter breathing,” and “Zero at the Bone.” In any event, reading the poem as a commentary on human cunning is entirely consistent with any further level of meaning. The narrator feels cordial toward “Several of Nature’s People” but has only fear for the snake. In this, as in many of Dickinson’s poems, one must beware of mixing biographical folklore with the poem and forcing the reading offered by structuralist critics that the poem is Dickinson’s confession of sexual fear.

Reading the poem’s first line aloud causes the tongue to flicker, like that of a snake; sibilants abound in increasing number as the lines describe the snake’s approach. These elements are certainly intentional. Poem 1670 (“In Winter in my Room”) presents a similar encounter, though with a worm-turned-snake. Relating the events as a dream sequence, this narrator flees whole towns from the creature before she dares set the experience down.

 Emily Dickinson Poetry

986 - A narrow Fellow in the Grass

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 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
Of cordiality;

But never met this fellow,
Attended or alone,
Without a tighter breathing,
And zero at the bone. 

Analysis

  • Poem 986 was one of only a few poems published during Dickinson’s lifetime. It was published with the title ‘The Snake’, Dickinson did not like this and said that giving the poem a name got rid of its mystery as it was initially intended to be a riddle shown by the inference of the first line: ‘A narrow Fellow in the Grass’.  ‘A narrow Fellow in the Grass’ has religious connotations in reference to the Garden of Eden and the Snake which corrupts Eve. However, the colloquial phrasing of ‘Fellow’ contrasts this sly cunning imagery by making the snake seem friendly and this is emphasised by ‘Occasionally rides-‘  suggesting the personification of the snake is playful.  However, Dickinson gives the impression of an alternate meaning by saying the snake is ‘Him’, the capitalisation – a stylistic trait of Dickinson’s –shows the greater importance, perhaps hinting at a man or, because of the religious connotations of snake, the devil.
  • The second stanza amplifies the image of the snake representing another, because it shows how the persona is always following someone, forexample ‘The Grass divides as with a Comb-‘. ‘Comb’ makes it seem colloquial and almost flippant but then the later part of the stanza shows how the divide ‘closes at your feet And opens further on –‘  which emphasizes how the persona is always following but can never quite get there. Similarly it shows the ‘snake’ to be far more cunning and sly – acting to the initial connotations given to it.
  • The third stanza is an anomaly in 986’s stanza structure, it is not regular with four lines but is 8 lines all together. It could suggest a more disjointed less formal feeling of the persona as first person is introduced for the first time here.  Firstly, though, ‘A floor to cool for corn-‘ suggest that nothing can be grown literally however could infer a desolate relationship. This also is shown by the harsh cadence of ‘Whip lash’ suggesting a quick movement that almost hurts the persona. The stanza ends quite sombrely by the ‘snake’ not being able to be captured by Dickinson; ‘It wrinkled, and was gone –‘. This is almost the end to the emotion in the whole poem and though Aldrich notes Dickinson to be a ‘poet with no grammar’ in actual fact the dash at the end of the line emphasises the finish of something whether a relationship or the persona’s ability to meet the snake. The dash represents a realisation as seen in other poems such as 258 and 754.
  • The fourth stanza is the most formal of them all. It starts by suggesting equality between nature – ‘Nature’s People’. However the equality is counteracted by the first person narrative of ‘I know, and they know me-‘ which shows the separation between the persona and nature. This is further emphasised by ‘…transport Of cordiality-‘ which though seems polite is actually very formal and fake. This is then shown in the last stanza by the persona not being able to meet ‘this Fellow…Without a tighter breathing And Zero at the Bone-‘. The ‘tighter breathing’ displays formality and constraint which is also shown in other poems by E.D such as 494 where it says ‘felt the bodice tug’. Dickinson explores the mental constraint through that of the physical. The poem in all is ambiguous.

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