Tom D'Evelyn on Poetry and Its Others (philosophy, theology, poetics)
Emily Dickinson’s “A Narrow Fellow in the Grass”:
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
But never met this Fellow,
Attended or alone
Without a tighter Breathing,
And Zero at the Bone.
from The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Reading Edition, ed. R. W. Franklin (Harvard UP 1999), p 444.
There’s much to like here. Dickinson uses her favorite stanza (combining lines of 4 and 3 emphatic syllables), which is modeled on a popular hymn form. She understands the tensions within the stanza and deploys them to maximum effect (given the subject matter, the hymn form may strike one as richly ambiguous), and even shifts to an abbreviated version after the introduction without missing a beat.
In the introduction, she presents her subject in the most detached manner – the clarity of the description of how the fellow divides the grass makes us convinced we too have seen it. But if we “did not” see it ourselves, she’s here to tell us: “its notice instant is.” The choice of “instant” (which in some texts has been “improved” to “sudden”) opens up a range of meanings: the in-stans suggests deep acknowledgement, or acknowledgement of depth: zero, in her word. As the poem develops its meditation on this narrow fellow, and its “instant” (unmediated?) appearance, the manner becomes more personal, if also odder. Perhaps “oddness” – utter singularity — is part of the message about us and this fellow. Perhaps “zero” is where we meet as singlular beings . . . .
Shifting to the shorter form (each line having three emphatic syllables), she departs from the casual and familiar hymn-like impersonality of the introduction. The pace quickens; the pace of our heart-beat speeds, if we are reading mindfully. Do we notice that her memory of the fellow is from the time she was a “boy”? She may mean youngster, but she may also mean to start building the “indirect” manner which is Dickinson’s celebrated style.
The vision from memory of the fellow “wrinkling” its way out of the grasp of the boy is a heightened one and seems emblematic. As a “boy,” she had the will to master this creature; as a boy, she discovered such mastery eluded her. Such wisdom does come to such a boy.
Returning as it were to the present, she pauses to note that in general she’s on familiar terms with creatures, and indeed recognizes herself as one among them. And yet this one is different. This one is set apart.
Naturally, to explain the difference one may look to the Biblical story of the Garden of Eden and the snake. In addition, I like to think that this poem shows Dickinson’s familiarity with and freedom from the modern model of objective knowledge. In that model, knowledge flows from doubt: we doubt what we see, and we learn about it in an effort to overcome doubt.
No doubt this is part of the meaning, for she does indeed overcome OUR doubt. But her tale is one of wonder. Wonder doubles doubt. Horror and wonder are near allied. This fellow makes “darkness visible” to paraphrase Milton. This “Zero at the Bone” indicates how being human is inseparable from the invisible and quite ambiguous orders of creaturely being.
In her recent book Dickinson: Selected Poems and Commentaries the great critic Helen Vendler refuses to be taken in by metaphysical interpretations of the narrow fellow. For her, this is a poem about a poisonous garden snake. And that’s that. The phrase “Zero at the Bone” is I guess mere hyperbole for her, though it does express an extreme discomfort for something that strikes fear in one. But I do feel Vendler’s is a reductive reading and does not do justice to the poem.
Emily Dickinson often leads one into a dark corner where one must think quite hard about something one had rather not think about. This is why she’s one of the greatest poets. She beguiles the reader into thought.