The snake

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.
Yet when a child, and barefoot,
I more than once, at morn,

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.

This is another of Dickinson's poems presenting the point of view of a child, but the speaker is now an adult looking back. Can we determine whether the "child" is a boy or a girl? In one variant of the poem "child," in stanza 3, reads "boy." Could a girl also be barefoot outside?

Initially, the snake is characterized as (1) transient or passing swiftly and (2) deceptive or misleading:
      (1) His appearance is "sudden." The snake's passing briefly divides the grass in one place, then does the same thing somewhere else. The snake is hard to see.
      (2) The speaker has been deluded by the snake's appearance--mistaking the snake for the lash of a whip. In other words, the snake appears to be one thing but is actually something else. What associations does a whip or a lash have? Is this descriptive detail positive or negative? When you reread the poem, do you see it as preparing for the ending?

The snake is described in human terms: "fellow" (twice), "rides," and "comb"; the use of "floor" for the kind of ground he likes suggests a house, rather than outdoors. At this point in the poem, do these words suggest the speaker's separateness or estrangement from the snake and nature, or do they suggest connection?

The speaker knows and is known by "Several of nature's people" and feels "a transport / Of cordiality" for them. (Transport means carried away with emotion, rapture; cordiality means graciousness, sincerity, or deep feeling.) Do these words emphasize the speaker's separateness or estrangement from nature and her people, or do they suggest connection? Is the snake included among "nature's people"? If not, does the snake's exclusion hint at a distancing of the speaker from the snake, a separation, however small, between them?

The last stanza begins with "But." What kind of connection does "but" establish with the preceding stanzas? does it lead you to expect similarity, an example, a contrast, or something else?

The speaker feels "a tighter breathing" and "zero at the bone" every time he/she sees a snake. "Tighter breathing" suggests constriction, a holding of the breath; is this a pleasant or an unpleasant feeling? "Zero" suggests cold and also nothingness. That the feeling penetrates to "the bone" suggests how deeply felt, how intense the emotion is. When you put all these details together, does the response sound like fear?

Is this a poem about the threat or danger that may suddenly reveal itself in nature? Could "zero" hint at death or the presence of death in nature?

One last detail: why does Dickinson use s sounds in the first stanza? Are s sounds appropriate to a snake, the subject of this poem?

Dickinson, Online overview
"For each ecstatic instant," p. 2
"I taste a liquor never brewed," p. 2
"Safe in their alabaster chambers," p. 3
"I heard a fly buzz when I died," p. 21
"It was not death, for I stood up," p. 22
"A bird came down the walk," p. 13
"I like to see it lap the miles," p. 27
"Pain has an element of blank," p. 31
"A narrow fellow in the grass," p. 44
"I'm nobody! Who are you?" p. 9
"After great pain a formal feeling comes" (handout)
"The soul selects her own society" (handout)
"The heart asks pleasure first," p. 24
"I'll tell you how the sun rose," p. 11
"Presentiment is that long shadow on the lawn," p. 36
"Success is counted sweetest" (handout)
"I cannot live with you," p. 29
"He fumbles at your spirit," p. 11
"I felt a cleaving in my mind," p. 43
"My life closed twice before its close," p. 49
"Wild nights! Wild nights!" p.5
"She sweeps with many-colored brooms," p. 3
"Hope is the thing with feathers," p. 5
"I felt a funeral in my brain," p. 8
"I had been hungry all the years," p. 26
"I started Early--took my Dog--" (handout)
"My life had stood a loaded gun" (handout)
"Because I could not stop for Death," p. 35
"If you were coming in the fall," p. 23
**Supplemental Reading**
      Sample Midtern and Student Answers

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