18 pages 36 minutes read

Emily Dickinson

A narrow Fellow in the Grass (1096)

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1865

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

“A narrow Fellow in the Grass (1096)” is a poem written by Emily Dickinson, likely in 1865, and published anonymously at the behest of her sister-in-law in 1866. The poem was first distributed under the title “The Snake” in a popular journal known as the Springfield Republican, much to Dickinson’s chagrin, as naming the creature spoils the poem’s riddle-like structure.

The poem—left untitled and, instead identified by the first line and a posthumously assigned number—is one of Dickinson’s most frequently anthologized works. “A narrow Fellow in the Grass (1096)” is difficult to classify generically, as it is both an ecological poem and a religious invocation; focusing on a snake evokes the metaphorical weight of the creature throughout the history of literature and Christianity. Dickinson straddles the divide between Realism and Romanticism by constructing her own unique Ecopoetics, decentering the passions and intellectual capacities of humanity, and imploring readers to reconsider the role of nature and literature in everyday life.

Poet Biography

Born on December 10, 1830, in Amherst, Massachusetts to Edward Dickinson and Emily Norcross, Emily Dickinson was the middle of three children. Edward’s ancestors had arrived in the “New World” (Turtle Island/North America) during the Puritan Great Migration two hundred years prior, and by Emily’s birth, the Dickinsons had become rather prominent citizens of the United States.

Dickinson enjoyed music, specifically playing the piano. This musical background later helped enrich her poetics and its unconventional rhythms. Her education ambitious for a young girl in the conservative Victorian Era: Dickinson attended Amherst Academy, where she studied literature, philosophy, and botany. There, she met Susan Huntington Gilbert, a lifelong friend a champion of Dickinson’s poetry from the very beginning, Gilbert received nearly all of her 300 poems upon Dickinson’s death.

Benjamin Franklin Newton, a family friend, introduced Dickinson to the Romantics like William Wordsworth and Transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson. He also encouraged her to write poetry and recognized her immense talent. Dickinson’s first published work was “Magnum bonum, harem scarem,” a Valentine’s poem that appeared in an 1850 edition of the Amherst College journal The Indicator.

In the late 1850s, Dickinson’s chronic illnesses became debilitating, which led to bed rest and isolation. During this time, Dickinson began to edit and compile her unpublished poetry in book-length works known as fascicles. Between 1858 and 1865, she produced 40 fascicles including nearly a thousand poems, which were later published posthumously. In 1867, Dickinson entirely withdrew from society, only interacting with visitors through a door; this was the most productive writing period of her life. Dickinson became so comfortable being alone that she preferred corresponding via letters, which has given literary critics a lot of material to peruse.

On May 15, 1886, Dickinson died from nephritis, a kidney disease. Per her request, her coffin was carried through a field of buttercups before being interred in Amherst’s West Cemetery. In 1890, Dickinson’s sister, Lavinia, uncovered over a thousand unpublished poems, which met with a great deal of success, canonizing Dickinson as one of the greatest English language poets of all time.

Poem Text

A narrow Fellow in the Grass

Occasionally rides—

You may have met him? Did you not

His notice instant 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—

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—

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.

Dickinson, Emily. “A narrow Fellow in the Grass.” 1866. The Poetry Foundation.

Summary

The poem begins ambiguously as the speaker addresses the reader in the second person, directing the reader’s attention to a “narrow Fellow” of indeterminate identity (Line 1) and asking the reader whether they have met this individual during his occasional travels. The narrow fellow is known to take people by surprise as he wanders about, separating the stalks of grass as he carves out his path, effectively dividing it “as with a Comb” through hair (Lines 4-5).

At this point, it becomes clear that the narrow fellow is not human. He is hard to detect in the grass and one may only notice parts of him, like a “spotted shaft” (Line 6), as the grass divisions quickly dissolve, concealing his body is once again, only for it to suddenly reappear elsewhere.

The speaker describes the narrow fellow’s assumed habitat preferences: “a Boggy Acre” and “A floor too cool for Corn” (Lines 9-10), wet areas that are too messy for bipedal humans.

The speaker describes an experience he had as a boy seeing the narrow fellow in the middle of the day: As he passed by a whip on the ground, he decided to pick it up, but upon stooping, the rope slithered away. The speaker compares the narrow fellow to other animals. Whereas the speaker feels affection for other creatures, the narrow fellow and his ilk have only ever left him breathless and afraid.

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