by Daisy Mae
This is a review of Emily Dickinson's A Narrow Fellow in the Grass.
|How Narrow is the Fellow?|
Emily Dickinson wrote many poems about nature, life, and death, but in many cases she leaves the naming of the subject up to her reader. Dickinson did not title her poems either, so in order to clarify which poem you are speaking of you say the first line of the poem as if it were the title. This is the case for poem number 986, which is known as, “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass.” In this poem Dickinson never clearly states that the subject of the poem, or rather that the “Fellow” is a snake. This is only known, positively, because the poem was published on February 14, 1866 under the title, “Snake”, which was during Dickinson's lifetime. Dickinson could have easily clarified her poem by adding a title or by mentioning the snake directly, but she chose to leave the identity unnamed. I believe that Dickinson chose to leave the “Fellow's” name unnamed because of her belief that names were secondary to the raw and immediate emotions of experiencing the snake. Her poetry was meant to be experienced by the reader, rather than read, which is shown in the lack of conformity in her writing style as well as her well thought out descriptions and love of nature.
The main subject in Dickinson's “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass” is portrayed only as “Fellow”(lines 1, 21), “Him” (3), and one of “Nature's People” (17). Never once is the word snake directly referenced, nor are words generally associated with snake such as hiss and slither. This could be though, because these particular words tend to have a negative connotation, which Dickinson did not want to portray. For even though the snake caused the narrator “Zero at the Bone” (24) he is still one of nature's creatures and not perceived as evil. Barbara Ingold says that Dickinson's ingenious use of metaphors which quite accurately describe the movement and action of a snake without giving the name exactly make the poem quite brilliant (3). Critic George Monteiro admired “Dickinson's use of the written language to kinesthetically depict a snake” and Ingold goes on to add that, “Although there are no strictly onomatopoeic words in this poem, Dickinson's use of alliteration, in particular the s sound, alludes to a snake” (Ingold 2). When reading this poem out loud it is possible to notice a definite alliteration of the “s” sound whenever the snake's actions are being directly described. Also,
Dickinson's use of the word fellow can be seen as showing the sense of camaraderie the boy feels towards the snake, even if the narrator admits to his fears at the end. He neither hates nor distrusts the snake but rather feels “a tighter breathing” ( line 23) whenever he comes across one. So Dickinson did not need to formally address the snake as such because her narrator and the snake were old acquaintances (seen in stanza three) whose bond went much deeper than simply a name. John Mulvihill wrote that both as a whole and in giving the subjects proper names, “not titling defamiliarizes the poem itself, forcing the reader into a more immediate experience of the poem itself as a thing [sic]” (7). In other words Dickinson's goal was to have the reader relive the experience of seeing the snake rather than read someone else's account of the event. Mulvihill went on to quote one of Dickinson's other poems, “The Butterfly upon the Sky,/That does'nt know its Name/Is just as high as you and I,/ And higher, I believe, . . .[sic]” (4-5). He used other examples as well, but the point was that Dickinson felt that names were a secondary form of description to what the eye itself could see. So, in order for her to create a true description of the snake she had to use her sense of sight and not her past knowledge of what the creature is classified as.
Dickinson showed a great love and reverence for nature throughout her life. This was true of many poets during the transcendentalism movement, but John Felstiner shows that unlike Walt Whitman and other contemporaries, Dickinson did not want to be one with nature but rather, she wanted to capture its beauty without interrupting its inhabitants (2). I believe that through this you can see that Dickinson was not trying to become one with the snake, but simply revel in it's own unique splendor. This can also be seen in the poem itself, when the narrator describes the snake as one “of Nature's People” (17) but one that causes a startling sense of fear when first seen. Throughout the poem, the snake does not perform any spectacular feat, but Dickinson finds joy and beauty enough to write about by simply describing the basic movements the snake makes. Dickinson's way of describing the snake was not unique to “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass”. In fact she wrote numerous poems about other creatures, using vivid descriptions, but never naming names.
Professor Lilia Melani wrote that part of the confusion that comes when reading this poem is because, Dickinson, “As part of her seeking essence or the heart of things . . . distilled or eliminated inessential language and punctuation from her poems” (4). Dickinson seemed to have truly believed that in order to best experience the snake, or any other subject you must only use the words which most deeply bring them to life. Anything more would simply take away from the magical beauty that is nature. Dickinson used an entire poem to describe a snake, so there was no need to add a clarifying statement. Sally Bushell wrote that she believed “Dickinson allows space within the creative process for unintended meaning and that such a space, and such a meaning, is an integral part of creative composition” (3). In other words poetry for Dickinson was at its best when the reader had to contribute in part by finding meaning without being told directly. “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass” is an experience, where the reader witnesses a creature and then calls upon their own knowledge to classify the “Fellow” as a snake. In the words of poet, Marianne Moore, “Omissions are not accidents” (Mulvihill 1).
Many have contemplated whether or not Dickinson meant to have her poems seen the way they are, without any retouching from editors. There are numerous critics who believe what was found of Dickinson's poetry were not necessarily final drafts and should be open to editorial improvement (Bushell 3). Bushell goes on to explain, though, that there is psychological evidence that even “the most spontaneous (even, accidental) elements of meaning must nonetheless come into being as a result of a more controlled framework” (5). In reference to “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass”, Dickinson had this poem published and her “posthumous editors”, according to Felstiner, “thought 'Child' more seemly than 'Boy' . . . But they couldn't tame Dickinson's wild scene” (6). Dickinson had a purpose in her poetry to paint a picture for the reader, and to not fit into the mold of what poetry ought to be. Her words were chosen with great care, and even her odd use of dashes and capitalization held meaning for her. Melani wrote that Dickinson “uses the dash to emphasize, to indicate a missing word or words, or to replace a comma or period” (5).
Dickinson once said that “as a little Girl, I was told that the Snake would bite me . . . but I went along and met no one but Angels, who were shyer of me, than I could be of them” (Felstiner 2). This shows that while Dickinson wanted to capture the essence of the snake in her poem, that essence, to her was of an “Angel” creature, who meant her, or rather the barefoot boy, no harm. “Dickinson uses personification to support the implication that a snake is a gentle creature seeking only to satisfy is needs, not a lowly, evil creature to be feared [sic]” (Ingold 3). She was not necessarily trying to be ambiguous, but was rather creating a more immediate setting for her reader so that they could experience the same emotions that she did.
Mulvihill wrote, “The conclusion of Archibald MacLeish's 1926 'Ars Poetica' distills this modernist ambition to: 'A poem should not mean/But be' [sic]” (5). So, in a way, Dickinson was simply ahead of her time when she wrote “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass” in a manner so that the reader can see, “a Whip lash/Unbraiding in the Sun” (lines 13-14). When referring to this poem, Mulvihill writes that, “These references [to the snake], because they are unspecific, create a feeling of either familiarity . . . or apprehensiveness, or both” (7). Overall, Dickinson paints a vivid picture for the reader, enabling them to see for themselves the snake as it really is. In this fashion the snake is not judged by his name, but by his actions. The reader, thanks to Emily Dickinson, is able to witness the snake as he rides through the grass, off the page, and into your living room.
Bushell, Sally. "Meaning in Dickinson's Manuscripts: Intending the Unintentional." Emily Dickinson Journal. 01 Jan. 2005: 24. eLibrary. Web. 24 Jun. 2010.
This periodical is a debate over what Emily Dickinson truly meant to portray in her poetry and whether or not she intended her poems to be seen in the format that they were discovered. Bushell begins with an argument of how Dickinson would want her poems to be read. Her writing style seems to be different than her contemporaries, possibly because they were writing to be published while Dickinson was not. Bushell argues that a poet should be in control of what a poem means and that it should be assumed that Dickinson had a purpose in her writing style. Dickinson had poems which held true to the accepted styles which, Bushell says proves she had a purpose when straying. Many professional psychologists are cited in this article to show that everything which seems unintentional in life was brought upon by some intentional action. There are many who question whether or not Dickinson's unique form of writing was intentional or not. This article also discusses how Dickinson's line breaks and capitalization methods should be interpreted when publishing her poems. Overall Bushell believes that the physical appearance of Dickinson's poems is part of the meaning and should not be “fixed” by editors. This article was helpful in understanding how the physical aspect of Dickinson's poems are seen as being related to the meaning.
Felstiner, John. ""Earth's Most Graphic Transaction": The Syllables of Emily Dickinson." American Poetry Review. 01 Mar. 2007: 7. eLibrary. Web. 26 Jun. 2010.
This article begins with the accounts of T.W. Higginson, a Civil War veteran who was a correspondent of Dickinson's. According to Higginson, Emily never sent him a picture but gave him a vivid array of metaphors in order to give him an idea of what she looked like. They also, through letters, discussed Dickinson's thoughts of Walt Whitman. Felstiner goes on to say that Whitman's view of nature was to be one with it, which showed in his poetry, whereas Dickinson saw nature as something fragile which should be watched and adored rather than disrupted by letting her presence be known. Felstiner also contained many excerpts from Dickinson's nature poems to demonstrate her love and respect of nature, as well as her style of describing the object of the poem without giving the bland dictionary type definition. Felstiner also goes in to great detail of the poem, “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass”, which was one of few published during Emily's lifetime. Dickinson fought her editor who wanted to make changes to her original version, which could be a reason why she chose to never publish her poems in bulk. This article is very good for showing Dickinson's special love of nature as well as her conviction that her poems not be altered from the way she intended them to be read.
Ingold, Barbara Seib. "Dickinson's 'A Narrow Fellow in the Grass.' (Emily Dickinson)." Explicator 54. (1996):220(4). eLibrary. Web. 24 Jun. 2010.
Ingold's article focuses completely on Emily Dickinson's poem known as “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass”, more specifically its meaning and how Dickinson used different literary techniques to describe a snake. The article says that this poem has been admired for a long time because of its ability to describe a snake and ones feelings towards it without out ever actually mentioning the word snake. Ingold says that the repeated alliteration of the “s” sound gives you the impression of a hissing snake. Also, Ingold says that Dickinson's ingenious use of metaphors which quite accurately describe the movement and action of a snake without giving the name exactly make the poem quite brilliant. This article showed me that Dickinson did have a snake in mind, and that finding the clues were not quite so difficult as I had first believed. Ingold believes that the poem's subject was discoverable but meant to be experienced rather than pointed out explicitly. Within the poem Ingold also notes that the personification of a “Fellow” or friend and the easy going rhythm shows that the persona does not dislike the snake. The poem ends, though, by showing the irrational fear that the snake holds for the boy through the use of metaphors and the slight change in rhythm.
Melani, Lilia. "Emily Dickinson: An Overview." Brooklyn College. Brooklyn College, 24 Feb. 2009. Web. 26 June 2010. <http://academic.brooklyn.cuny.edu/english/melani/cs6/dickinson.html>. This website is an overview of Emily Dickinson and her writing style given as part of a class for Brooklyn College. The professor gives a synopsis of how Dickinson lived her life and how that possibly contributed to her more than 1700 poems, most of which were not discovered until her death. Emily Dickinson was somewhat of a recluse who became more and more aloof as her life progressed. Only a select few of her poems were published before her death. Dickinson's writing style is very unique, she refused to use the rules of grammar and punctuation in her poems. Also Dickinson left out words, which could have been used to clarify because they were inessential to the emotion she was trying to convey. She used the dash (–) to denote where a word or punctuation mark was left out. The site goes on to briefly describe the different genres Dickinson employed in her writing. Under nature it said that Dickinson saw it as being a source of joy and beauty, but with the potential to become dangerous. Overall the author felt that whereas some of the poems could be confusing, many held a thought or feeling that most everyone could relate to, and this is why Emily Dickinson remains such a widely read poet to this day. This website was helpful because it showed that Dickinson left out words which she felt were insignificant, even if they could help in clarifying.
Mulvihill, John. "Why Dickinson Didn't Title."The Emily Dickinson Journal 5.1 (1996): 71-87. Print.
This article discusses the many theories to why Emily Dickinson did not title her poems. Mulvihill delves deeply into the idea that to Dickinson names were only second best to seeing and experiencing the phenomenons of nature. Placing a name to her poem then, would be taking away from the effect the poem is capable of having on the reader. Mulvihill specifically talks about “The Narrow Fellow in the Grass”, saying that Dickinson used the familiar pronouns to make the snake seem more familiar and in the moment, so that the reader could experience the moment instead of read about it. As for some of the theories to why Dickinson did not title there is the fact that she did not want to publish her work, a resistance towards authority, and interestingly as a means to come back later and revisit the poem. A title would make the work final and thus, for Dickinson unapproachable. Within his article Mulvihill uses numerous excerpts from Dickinson's poems and letters to show her disdain for names when a better way is manageable. He even shows that in her correspondence Dickinson seems to see her poems as objects (of those things she describes within them). Only when a name is all that is left was it important for Dickinson for the name to be known. This article helped very much in showing me the reasoning for Dickinson's lack of titles and also for word choice when describing the snake. She was not necessarily trying to be ambiguous, but was rather creating a more immediate setting for her reader so that they could experience the same emotions that she did.