“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.