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So it turns out that, for a long time, people got Emily Dickinson all wrong—or mostly wrong. Teachers and students had this image of Dickinson as this Civil-War era, virginal, mousey woman that never left her house or wanted to publish a poem. But the more you look into her letters, her poetry, and newer biographies, the more you see how she was a sarcastic, witty woman who had major crushes on dudes (and dudettes). She was a total drama queen and could have been a famous poet had she not been so dedicated to her family and turned off by the world outside of her neighborhood.
Emily wrote letters non-stop, and most of them were to Susan Dickinson (her sister-in-law). It was pretty typical of the time for women and men to write very personal poetry and share it with people close to them. Emily wrote 1789 poems and poem fragments this way. Unlike most poets we read today, she wasn’t sending off drafts to magazines and trying to make a living out of it. Some poems did get published though.
One of these was “A narrow Fellow in the Grass,” published by Sue Dickinson without Emily’s knowledge. Sue submitted one of Emily’ private poems with some edits and a title (“The Snake”) to the Springfield Daily Republican. One of those edits was moving the question mark in the third line. Dickinson may have been secretly happy to get something published, but she certainly wasn’t happy about having people mess with her punctuation. She even wrote a letter to this guy she had a crush on, just so he would know that she didn’t mean to put the question mark at the end of the third line. Here’s part of the letter: “Lest you meet my Snake [the published version of “A narrow Fellow in the Grass”] and suppose I deceive it was robbed of me—defeated too of the third line by the punctuation. The third and fourth were one.”
So, clearly, Dickinson was not just scribbling in her diary. She had artistic vision behind her poems, and was rightly cheesed off when somebody came around to mess with that. And what a vision it was. With “A narrow Fellow in the Grass,” Dickinson has crafted a poem that has more layers than a toddler going out into a snowstorm. Every element of the poem calls for our attention. The dashes, the question mark, the capitalization, and the strange wording are all important, because they mix together to make our encounter with “A narrow Fellow in the Grass” both intriguing, and as startling as almost stepping on a snake.
Ever had a chill run down your spine? We bet you have. Was it a person that had such a creepy effect on you, or did you just forget your jacket on a windy day? If it's the former, person-related experience, boy do we have a poem for you. Emily Dickinson's poetry is often seen as private, personal, and difficult for people to relate to. But, spend a little time with her work and we bet that, like us, you'll start to make all kinds of personal connections.
Take this poem, “A narrow Fellow in the Grass,” for example. A speaker comes across a snake in the grass (literally). No big whoop, right? Well, for most of us, it isn't. But Dickinson has a gift of exploding the moment, of really examination how a daily occurrence like this might be meaningful, even vital, to human experience.
Think about it: have you even met something in the world—human or animal—that had an immediate, chilling effect on you? What was it about that encounter that affected you so? What cues gave you that threat response, put your hairs up on end? This poem really explores that moment of cold realization when you realize that things may not be as warm and fuzzy as you had supposed.
Sure, it's not a particularly pleasant sensation, but it's a one that nearly all of us can relate to at some point in our lives. It's also an odd, kind of extra-sensory experience when we just feel that something is off, rather than know it explicitly. Dickinson's really tapped into that primal experience here, but in an elegant and distilled way. So, put your regular senses on hold and dive into this poem. It's sure to be a sensation you won't soon forget!
Emily Dickinson Lexicon
Here's a killer website created by a BYU student. You can look up words that Dickinson uses and find out the definition as used in her time.
Learn all about Emily's life and times here.
Modern(ish) American Poet
Lots of good stuff on Dickinson can be found here, including info on her dashes and writing habits.
Stuff and More Stuff
Check out some great photos of some of the poet’s possessions.
It's a bit weird, but that's why we like it.
Too much for words
Wow. Heavy Metal Dickinson.
Julie Harris reads Dickinson
Audio versions of many poems by the actress, not by the original author of course.
Prim and wide-eyed.
The quality of the print makes here seem more ghostly than she likely was in real life.
Here are examples of how Dickinson would write out a final draft and fold it neatly. Click on the images for larger versions and try to make sense of the handwriting, if you can.
Letters to Higginson
Check out Emily's handwritten letters to her mentor and eventual publisher, T. W. Higginson.
This is the best, most current collection of Dickinson’s poetry. Edited by R.W. Franklin
The Life of Emily Dickinson
This is a quality biography of the poet.
This is a trendy biography looking into her relationship with Thomas Wentworth Higginson.
“Beauty Crowds Me”
A short film made in 1998
“I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died"
Another short film for your viewing pleasure.
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