August 21, 2008
Rhythm in “A narrow Fellow in the Grass”
The basis of rhythm in poetry is meter, the pattern of stressed and unstressed syllables. However, sounds like rhyme, half-rhyme, alliteration, assonance, and consonance can also affect the way we place stress on words and phrases as do pauses created by punctuation. Sentence structure and the way a line ends affect rhythm as well. Michael Meyer tells us that poets use rhythm to “reinforce meaning” (2192). In “A narrow Fellow in the Grass” Emily Dickinson uses all of these methods of creating rhythm to reveal the speaker’s feelings about his encounters with snakes and nature’s other creatures. The stanzas in “A narrow Fellow in the Grass” are made up of alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and imabic trimeter.
A nar(row Fel(low in ( the Grass
Ocas( sional( ly rides –
You may ( have met (Him – did ( you not
His no ( tice sud ( den is - (Dickinson 2)
The red letters indicate stressed syllabled; the black unstressed. An imabic foot consists of one unstressed syllable and one stressed syllable. The changes to this pattern and the subtle variations in emphasis reveal the speaker’s deeper feelings about his experiences. The rhythm in the first stanza captures the movement of the snake and the speaker’s reaction to it. The first two lines are enjambed creating a smoothly flowing line of seven imabic feet. The rhythm of this line captures the smooth flowing movement of the snake as it moves through the grass. This rhythm is contrasted with the short, choppy phrases of the next two lines which mirror the speaker’s reaction to the snake. The inverted sentence pattern of the last line gives emphasis to the suddenness of the snake’s appearance. The repetition of the “s” sound captures the sound of the snake while the repetition of the long “o” sound and the “no” sound reveal the speaker’s negative reaction. Finally, the half rhyme between “rides” and “is” emphasizes the “s” sound of the snake rather than the speaker’s completed thought, an effect that emphasizes the speaker’s startled reaction. The rhythm of this first stanza establishes the contrast between the “denotative” snake and the speaker’s “connotative” snake. The rhythm of the second stanza of the poem reveals the speaker’s relief as the snake moves away by reversing the rhythm of the first stanza. The speaker is startled at the end of the first stanza, a feeling that is continued in the first two lines of the second:
The Grass ( divides ( as with ( a comb –
A spot ( ted shaft ( is seen – (2)
While these lines follow the basic meter of the poem, they produce a choppy affect because they are end-stopped lines. An additional pause is indicated by the hyphens. Also, both sentences as passive rather than active constructions. Normally we would say “the snake divides the grass,” but here the passive constructions, “The grass divides” and “A spotted shaft is seen” inhibit the the rhythm. However, the lines are not as halting or choppy as the last two lines of the first stanza indicating that the speaker’s initial fear has abated somewhat or that the speaker has distanced himself from the experience. As the snake moves away in the last two lines, the speaker’s tension decreases.
And then ( it clo (ses at (your feet
And o (pens fur (ther on – (2)
These lines are enjambed like the first two lines of the poem, creating a smoother rhythm as the snake moves away. The speaker’s experience of actually seeing the “spotted shaft” is emphasized by the strong half-rhyme between “seen” and “feet” at the end of the second and third lines. The long “e” sounds replicate the sound we might make when startled by a snake, and they take longer to say than short vowels. The “s” sounds - “spotted shaft is seen” (2) – come at the beginning of many words are more frequent and emphatic as the snake approaches. They...