#29 untitled (“A narrow Fellow,” Emily Dickinson)

“Ophidiophobia,” it’s called: the fear of snakes. I’m not sure that the speaker of Emily Dickinson’s untitled poem that starts “A narrow Fellow in the Grass” is an ophidiophobe, exactly. But the phrase “Zero at the Bone” has entered the English language for something that scares you on a deeper level than goose pimples.

One of my favorite details in the poem is the image of the “Boy” thinking he sees a whiplash in the lawn. (Presumably, in a world where horses and their drivers were commonplace, you might see bits of whiplash lying around here and there, much as you see bits of tire tread on the Interstate today.)

The picture is so vivid: you see something skinny and interesting on the ground. You try to pick it up – and it wriggles away. Oh boy, are you glad you didn’t touch it. What if you’d managed to pick it up?

I think this poem is exceptionally fine, even though I don’t share its central phobia. I find snakes more intriguing than horrifying. But even if you are a bona fide herpetophile, the emotional force of the poem is clear, and easy to empathize with.

There are many things in the animal world that we can identify with, and we have seen some of them in the Countdown: cats and birds in particular seem to inspire poets to think about what is noble, or sometimes foolish, in the human condition.

But then there are animals that obviously have minds of their own but move (literally) in ways that we can’t empathize with in the least. And such animals make the world a lonelier, and a stranger, place. Someone once said of Emily Dickinson that she “made the world a little harder to see.” She does that here.

A brief note on form in the poem: these stanzas are fairly ordinary songlike stanzas rhyming XAXA (where “X” is a line that doesn’t participate in any rhyme). The dashes and the odd capitals are Dickinson’s signature style; they come directly from her handwriting. And she insisted on them. This was one of the few poems printed during her lifetime, and she remarked on how the printer had messed it up by changing the punctuation.


8 responses to “#29 untitled (“A narrow Fellow,” Emily Dickinson)

  1. I think it’s strange how this poem has no title; just liket the structure of the poem is. First of all, I feel like the speaker is a lover of animals as well as nature so I don’t think that the speaker of the poem has a fear for snakes; I think that he is being cautious because he had not seen a snake before; considering when he says “never met this fellow”. The last sentence of the poem that says “Zero at the bone”, maybe interpreted as the speaker being scared but I interpret it as him being nervou-excited. He’s nervous because he has not really understood a snake but he’s excited because he loves animals, and seeing the snake for the first time excites him. I can definitely imagine the picture of the boy misconstruing the whiplash for a snake and I can relate to it. I have once come across a snake that camouflaged with grass; I didn’t realize it was there until I looked closer and saw it move slightly. I consider myself as an Ophidiophobe because I am deathly afraid of snakes; they are strange, unpredictable, and generally horrible. This poem portrays the strangeness of a snake.

  2. The last two lines of the poem kind of threw me off. I had some difficulty understanding the intended meaning of “Without a tighter breathing.” Does it mean that the speaker’s breathing was not any tighter than normal, as if the speaker didn’t feel any fear of the snake? Or…does it mean that the speaker’s breathing had never been any tighter than it was at that moment, as if the speaker had never felt a greater amount of fear. Maybe the intended meaning is obvious and I’m just not seeing it…I don’t know. My lack of full understanding of the second to last line also impeded my understanding of the last line, “And Zero to the Bone.” What does “Zero” mean? Does it have anything to do with the tightness of the speaker’s breath, or the amount of fear that they might have been feeling? I can’t seem figure it out. What also puzzles me is the seemingly random capitalization and use of dashes. I tried to find a pattern or reason behind it, but I can’t. The use of capitalization and dashes in the last line only adds to my confusion.

  3. This poem makes me think about my own fears and preferences of nature. I don’t fear snakes, in fact I’ve held and touched several, my best friend had a few as pets, but I can’t abide worms. I think it has something to do with snakes being more sentient than worms. People often tell me how strange that is. I can play with a snake but nothing creeps me out worse than a worm. I refused to dissect one in a high school biology class. I was able to dissect everything else, the squid and even the fetal pig but I wouldn’t go near the tables for the worm. In fact, just mentioning and typing about them is upsetting me. There have been times where I have seen something moving on the ground and I experience the feeling that Emily Dickinson was describing in the poem. The way I feel when I think I’ve come across a worm is can be described as she describes it. The tightness of breath and “zero at the bone.” The phrase zero at the bone I think is that feeling where you feel as if your skeletal system has just vanished and you are about to collapse on the floor. It’s like being paralyzed and you feel as if your just a mass of gelatin. My best friend practically had her own petting zoo. She had snakes, geckos, iguanas, fish, birds, a cat, a rabbit and three dogs. The funny thing is she is scared of spiders even the little ones!

  4. I could not find a meaning to this poem. Dickinson is simply talking about a fear of snakes. I have a fear of snakes and would be fearful of them too. The end of the poem, “Without a tighter breathing and zero at the bone’. I believe Dickinson is speaking on the fear and how scared the boy is of the snake. The structure of this poem is very different just like the poem. This poem is one of my least favorites on the countdown because it does not have a meaning and does not express feeling.

  5. andreamcginley

    @ nkbabe1, none of Emily Dickinson’s poems have titles, she was an odd reclusive person, her poems are similarly odd. But I do agree with you, I think that the speaker is a nature lover, but I do not think the speaker is a fan of snakes. In the fourth stanza the speaker talks about knowing “Nature People” and having ‘Cordiality’ towards them. This stanza stands out as a nature loving person because the speaker and others have a common interest to be friendly about. Typically people are able to bond of similarities are differences that they have over a subject, and to be friendly towards another would imply that one has a common interest. However in moving into the last stanza the speakers who has never “met this Fellow Attended or alone without a tighter breathing and zero at the bone”, gives a sense that no matter who the speaker is with she will never be able to confront the snake without an immense amount of fear. Also I did say she, I feel confident in assuming the speaker is a ‘she’ because in the third stanza it speaks of a barefooted boy, whom back in the day boys were the adventurous kind who ran barefooted outdoors. This part of the poem reminds me of the poem; “A Song in the Front Yard” because those who play in the weeds in the backyard are typically branded to grow up ‘bad women’ or are guys which are expected to play in the weeds.

  6. When I read this poem again I was struck by the image that it gave me immediately. I see a little boy walking through the short grass by the road maybe carrying his fishing pole in overalls rolled up and a dirty old hat. He isn’t wearing any shoes but he is looking at the ground. Although this poem does not describe the landscape all that well I am struck by the image of fields, grass, dirt roads, and blue skies forever. I think that the way this poem does this is basic language that gives you something to imagine. I am not afraid of snakes necessarily but I can see them slithering through the grass as in this poem. I get almost a little fear from it not really knowing what it is. Emily Dickenson always makes me imagine with her words and that is why I like her so much this poem is simple and yet has lots of feeling.

  7. I really like that the poem doesn’t have a title. After reading through it just once, I knew what it was about. I didn’t even have to read through the entire poem before I knew it was about snakes. I think the poet did this on purpose for us to use our imagination to realize what the poem is about, snakes. The poem is obviously about the speaker’s encounter with a snake. I can’t decide whether or not it is about the speaker’s fear of snakes or his joy for nature and its animals. I am a huge outdoor fan and every time I have encountered a snake I usually always catch it and scare people with it. occasionally I have mistaken a snake for something else but never have I been scared of them. I think they fear us more than we do them, that’s why most of them strike, in defense. They see us as a predator. I think the speaker feels the same way, “stooping to secure it It wrinkled, and was gone.” He towered over it, scared it and caused it to flee. If the speaker had a fear of snakes, I don’t think he would roam around barefoot looking for whip lash knowing there are snakes out there. The last two lines of the poem are a bit confusing to me as well. Is the speaker talking about being scared or the snake? Does “Without a tighter breathing” refer to one being scared when encountering a snake and your breathing getting heavier or depicting the snakes breathing. It being a small creature has a tighter breathing than we do. “And zero at the bone” does this resemble our reaction to it or the snake being a cold-blooded animal?

  8. i’m a little confused by the way i feel about this poem. i’m honestly not sure exactly how i feel about it. on one hand i see it as lacking substance. it talks about an encouter with a snake on the surface but i cant quite pinpoint the underlying meaning. in other poems we have studied this semester there has been a surface story on top of an underlying message or subject. maybe there is not one and i’m looking too hard at it, trying to find something that is not there. i’m not quite familiar with dickenson so im not sure if this poem is on par with others she has written. on the other hand i like the playfull tone of the poem. it reminds me of my childhood and the times i would go explore in the woods near my house. it reminds me of how carefree life is as a child, it also reminds me of how easy it is to get into trouble. so i guess i’m torn, displeased with the aparant lack of substance but at the same time likeing and relating to the tone.

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