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How to Write Poetry: An analysis of a Unique Poem


“A Narrow Fellow in the Grass” by Emily Dickinson

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,

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.

Emily Dickinson, "A Narrow Fellow in the Grass" from The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Variorum Edition, Ralph W. Franklin, ed., Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, Copyright ©  1998 by the President andFellows of Harvard College. Copyright © 1951, 1955, 1979, 1983 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College.
 Source: The Poems of Emily Dickinson: Variorum Edition (Harvard University Press, 1998)

This is one of the finest poems of Dickinson’s that I have come across. Let us think of why. There is the obvious theme that is symbolic, whereby the snake is connected to evil in the Western tradition. The poem deals with the presence of things inimical to man’s emotional and mental well-being in nature that might be called detrimental to his welfare, like the presence of poisonous snakes and the boy’s reaction to them. “…zero at the bone.” The boy becomes spineless like the snake, in a curious reversal of positions, at the end of the poem! His spine melts or turns to water on seeing a snake. The point of view in the poem is interesting. A woman poet writes as a little boy. Another thing that is interesting is the use of organic imagery by which fear is shown and not named as is the snake. A classic example of showing and not telling. The poem is about visual imagery and implicit metaphors as well as a very skillful use of rhyme, no doubt. It weaves a curved path like the movement of the snake, to put it poetically, by starting with a description whereby the snake in the grass whose slimness is conveyed by the adjective narrow is shown to be adept at moving through the grass like a comb is through hair, and is also shown to be like a rider on a horse meaning he rules nature, the way a rider tames a horse and leads it on the path he wants even in a thick forest. The second stanza tells us not what the boy sees but what the snake likes. He likes coolness, dampness or wetness and darkness. The agrarian images of boggy acre and corn floor, barefoot boy and whiplash that tie up neatly along with the word unbraiding with the earlier comb and hair and horse and rider strengthen the poem’s intertextuality. The magical ability of the snake to disappear in a second or trice and its dangerous nature suggested by the strange use of a sound for a sight – whiplash! – show we may be dealing with the supernatural. In the last stanza, the boy is shown to have a kindred affinity with many of nature’s creatures but knows fear, whether attended (in company) or alone, shown by his “tighter breathing.” Why does this poem that uses rhyme sparingly and effectively but metaphor and metonymy well as well as symbolism fascinate us? Is it because it has a subtext of sexuality? It is denotative of an encounter with a snake but connotative of fear of nature, evil and when one strips it of its point of view of sex. The snake acquires phallic overtones in such a reading, through associations we can make with words and phrases like “wrinkled” and “spotted shaft.” So, apart from rhyme, imagery, figures of speech, symbols and the ability to show and not tell using a diction that is quite different from the normal one ( remember “unbraiding”) what is remarkable about this poem is its levels of which one is denotative and three are connotative, being about nature, the myth of evil and sex . Such a short poem but packed with lessons for the diligent poet. If one can write like this, one would indeed become as great a poet as Dickinson. At least the tools are now clearer to us after this analysis and may help us write better.

Dr Ampat Koshy

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