Sunday Poetry: The Snake, by Emily Dickinson

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.

– by Emily Dickinson
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I’m not really a fan of Emily Dickinson’s poetry. The Belle of Amherst’s poetry strikes me as remote and high-falutin’. Most of her poetry seems somehow artificial and a little tedious. Her elliptical discussions of Death and Love and Whatever she chooses to capitalize seem like clever parlor talk to me, tied up in propriety and passivity, and tangled with sentence structures twisted to fit the poem. “Did you not – his appearance sudden is”? Emily Dickinson may be the inspiration for Yoda.

And yet I know I’m missing something. Dickinson is widely regarded as one of the greats, and my lack of appreciation for her work probably speaks more of my incomplete aesthetic make-up than it speaks of any flaw in her approach. To me, Dickinson is kind of like opera – I acknowledge that people far smarter than me find great pleasure in it, but the pleasure eludes me.

All that said, this is my favorite of her poems. The descriptions of a snake as a narrow fellow in the grass, and parting the grass like a comb are both creative and fresh. But the line that has stayed with me for years is “zero at the bone” – to me, a perfect description of that shock of fear and panic that jolts you on occasion. That feeling after your car skids to a halt inches from another, or when the phone rings at night, and your thoughts fly toward where your children are.

The fact that a 19th century recluse penned words that ring to true to a blogger in the 21st century is an impressive display of the power of Dickinson’s language and thought.

(Buy Emily Dickinson’s poetry in an old edition at someplace wonderful like Spivey’s or Prospero’s. Buying a used volume of old poetry is a glorious form of green.)

3 Responses to “Sunday Poetry: The Snake, by Emily Dickinson”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Watch what you say about Amherst!

  2. Anonymous says:

    I like D.H. Lawrence's Snake poem better.

  3. [...] also most appropriate this Earth Day, ‘The Snake,’ by Emily Dickinson: A narrow fellow in the grass Occasionally rides; You may have met [...]

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