Poetic Investigations

Tom D'Evelyn on Poetry and Its Others (philosophy, theology, poetics)

Zero at the Bone: Dickinson’s Metaphysical Moment


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

Of Cordiality

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.


15 comments on “Zero at the Bone: Dickinson’s Metaphysical Moment

  1. Cynthia Jobin
    September 27, 2014

    I speculate that Emily would prefer our calling her stanza “common measure” as it was known in her time, much like the ballad stanza, but in stricter iambic. The hymnal stanza rhymes abab, and Emily breaks with that, as well as indulging her gift for off-rhyme…and deciding at some point to speed things up. Though hymns were all around her, I imagine her wishing to be just a bit contrary in regards to liturgy.
    It’s fun to imagine the levels of meaning in a poem like this, and bring our own predilections into it, but on this one I have to agree with Vendler……though I enjoyed reading your analysis.


  2. Tom D'Evelyn
    September 27, 2014

    Thanks! I had the good fortune to edit The Passion of Emily Dickinson at Harvard. The book is still in print and I hear HUP is planning a special edition. She is one of the greatest of poets, I believe. Vendler consistently misreads poets with a metaphysical dimension (she argues Heaney was a Stoic where he is a poet who reimagined the religion of his youth in profoundly personal ways). I want to go back and see what she makes of a Herbert.


  3. Cynthia Jobin
    September 27, 2014

    I do agree with what you say about Helen Vendler’s readings for the most part, Tom. (Helen V. and I attended the same women’s Catholic college in Boston, though in different eras….she was a chemistry major, I believe!) I also agree about the greatness of Dickinson…and her metaphysical dimension in many poems.


    • Tom D'Evelyn
      September 27, 2014

      Fascinating! What do you do with the concept “zero”: I think this is a case of the nihilism aporia. I’ve written about that on other blogs.


  4. Cynthia Jobin
    September 27, 2014

    You’ll think this weird….if I treat zero as a concept, then it has the mathematical meaning for me, i.e.. not “nothing”, but a sort of place-holder. If I treat it experientially, synesthetically, I hear the “Z” and the “O”, and see the “O” as an amazed mouth or a hole….and these things give me the chills…at the bone;.it’s not so conceptual as it is aesthetic…..even saying, and thinking this much would be too much, for the poet writing, I think, but maybe okay after a poet is dead and won’t revise it anymore…


  5. Tom D'Evelyn
    September 27, 2014

    Cool! What does it mean in the poem? As it is placed, it bears the whole weight of the experience. We have agreed that Dickinson is a very great poet. Like Yeats or Shakespeare. So I think we should expect zero here to fulfill her purpose. It is of course a feeling– or rather it is a perception. What does she want us to think about as we finish rereading the poem?


  6. Cynthia Jobin
    September 27, 2014

    That snakes really give her the willies…..


    • Tom D'Evelyn
      September 27, 2014

      So Shakespeare wrote Hamlet because he was afraid of ghosts! I think in the old days we would call that the biographical fallacy. It certainly reduces our experience of the poem to a biographical fact about the poet..


  7. Cynthia Jobin
    September 27, 2014

    Well now, Tom, I would not jump to your QED about Shakespeare and ghosts…nor do I think Emily’s fear of snakes is her biography, …I am only saying that our experience …yours and mine differing, perhaps….is just that: our experience of the poem. What Emily’s intention for us might have been, I do not know…I doubt she had one…The poem is an artifact, created in the past; as such it is dead until we drag it into the present and make of it what we will….but whatever it was for Emily, it is impossible to exactly know…our experience of the poem cannot be a fixed thing, exactly the same for everyone, operating under an axiom of objectivity…is where I stand.

    This has been a pleasurable discussion…and now, good night! 🙂


  8. Tom D'Evelyn
    September 27, 2014

    That was a JOKE about Hamlet! Your generalities are half truths. Not worth arguing about. Zero is part of the poem and as such should be interpreted in light of what comes before it in the poem.
    And there will be contexts outside the poem that will help.
    I stand by my interpretation, which was carefully argued. It appears to have made no difference to you. I accept that. Rough night at a The Comedy Club.


  9. husmde
    September 27, 2014

    thanks for the insightful inside-out reading of a remarkable poem. Vendler seems insensitive not just to ‘metaphysics’ but to the inside-out otherness of ED’s diction; for me, the shock of the modern-sounding ‘zero at the bone’ in its context of more luxuriously descriptive language enacts differences of the fertile void. That’s not that. Or this. That is.


  10. Tom D'Evelyn
    September 27, 2014

    Oh yes, that too! The phrase is truly polyvocally original, zero as the empty or open whole!


  11. Cynthia Jobin
    September 27, 2014

    Good morning Tom! Here’s another one for you: there’s no such thing as a
    half truth. Do stand by your interpretation, carefully argued. You get a gold star!


  12. husmde
    September 29, 2014

    This weekend, I kept thinking about the blog post, or more exactly teh ED poem. It seems to me that her use of ‘fellow’ is not just a kind of colloquial familiar turn of phrase but an indicator of the fellowship she inhabits with the snake and all other creates.
    Again I think Vendler has missed a pretty important connotation of a word! As someone who loves words she should know better than to assert that things/animals are just things/animals!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


This entry was posted on September 26, 2014 by in Dickinson.
%d bloggers like this: