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 decrease in frequency and come at the end of words as the snake moves away –“And closes at your feet/And opens further on” (2). The speaker recalls more specific encounters with snakes in the next two stanzas. These experiences are more personal and more intense because they are experiences from his boyhood that remain vivid in his imagination. The last line of the first stanza and the first line of the next stanza are enjambed, there are a number of feminine endings or unstressed syllables at the end of lines, and most of the lines have only three stressed syllables.
He likes ( a Bog (gy A (cre
A floor too cool for Corn –
Yet when ( a boy, ( and bare (foot –
I more ( than once ( at Noon
Have passed, ( I thought, ( a Whip ( lash
Unbraid (ing in ( the sun
When stoop (ing to (secure ( it
It wrink (led and (was gone. (3)
The rhythm is quicker and more agitated in these stanzas because the lines have fewer stressed syllables, and there are four feminine endings. This change from the established meter of the poem indicates the speaker’s increased tension as he rushes through these experiences. The words “Bare” and “Whip” get extra emphasis because they occur before feminine endings, yet they are embedded in the line rather than at the end of the line. Sunconsciously, the speaker may associate the experience of encountering the snake with punishment - a whipping on a bare bottom. Note, too, that the speaker is bending over. “Bare” may also be a reference to Adam and Eve’s naked state before the encounter with the serpent in the Garden of Eden. The second stanza includes a run-on sentence that interferes with the enjambment of the second and third line of in the second stanza. There should be a pause, but no pause is indicated by punctuation. Instead the lines are run together clumsily mirroring the clumsy action of the speaker as he reaches for a whip that turns out to be a snake. The speaker’s clumsiness can be attributed to his age. As a boy, he does not understand the complexities of the world, especially the difference between appearance and reality. The speaker comments on his experiences from an adult perspective in the final two stanzas of the poem:
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 a Zero at the Bone – (3)
The rhythm is immediately slowed down by the stress on the first syllable of “Several,” and the use of multi-syllable words “Several of nature’s People” and “transport/ Of cordiality.” Although the meter is not strictly alternating iambic tetratmeter and imabic trimeter, alternating syllables receive stress, so the rhythm is smoother than the previous two stanzas. The fact that there are four feminine endings shows that the speaker still feels tension though he has more control of his feelings. The feminine endings, however, make these lines less emphatic than they would be with masucline endings. The speaker seems certain of his comments, but the lack of stress at the ends of these lines undercuts his certainty. In most of the poem the speaker has used concrete language to describe his experiences. Most of the words are one or two syllable words, but here he uses abstract language and a five syllable word “transport/ Of cordiality” to describe his relationship with “Nature’s People.” In contrast, he returns to very concrete, simple language in the final stanza to comment on his feelings toward the snake. While we cannot actually feel what a transport of cordiality is, we can feel “a tighter breathing/ And a Zero at the Bone.” The feminine ending on “breathing” takes away our breath. The emphatic end rhyme between “alone” and “Bone” as well as the repetition of the long “o” sound we heard at the beginning of the poem makes us more certain of the speaker’s fear the snake. In the final two stanzas the speaker seems to express an ambivalent view toward nature. He has a relationship that is both cordial and transcendent with some of nature’s creatures, but he has an irrational fear of snakes. He seems to view the world as being both benevolent and malevolent. An examination of the rhythm of the poem, however, indicates that his attraction and repulsion to the malevolent forces of nature represented by the snake are much stronger than his feelings of cordiality. Even as an adult who can distinguish between appearance and reality, he still has a visceral response to snakes. He may understand that his fear is irrational, but his fear is inescapable.
Dickinson, Emily. “A narrow Fellow in the Grass.” The Bedford Introduction to Literature, 8th ed. Ed. Michael Meyer. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2008. 2-3.
Meyer, Michael. The Bedford Introduction to Literature, 8th ed. Ed. Michael Meyer. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2008. 2192.