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To Emily Dickinson, a keen botanist, nature was a beautiful mystery, and throughout her life spent vast amount of time among plants, yet never felt connected to the natural world. Her writing reflects this lack of connection, and the inability to penetrate nature, when describing the grass that “closes at your feet” in ‘A narrow Fellow in the Grass’. This incapability to be a part of nature is further demonstrated in many of her other poems; in ‘A Bird came down the Walk’ she is unable to offer “a Crumb” to the bird, and she is unable to reach the “so far” water of ‘What mystery pervades a well!’ In ‘A narrow Fellow in the Grass’, Dickinson presents a paradox; man is distant from nature, yet in close proximity, to show man’s lack of understanding of nature. She describes nature in detail, displaying not only her passion for it, but her physical closeness, however uses the simile “divides as with a Comb” for the grass, which is a juxtaposition of the natural and unnatural, demonstrating her lack of understanding, and therefore emotional distance. This is further emphasised by the dash which ends this line, representing a barrier between man and nature, despite nature being “at your feet”.
Dickinson in this way mocks Romanticism and Transcendentalism, which believed in the connection between man and nature, which to her was not simple. This poem presents the complexity she sees in the relationship, and how difficult it is for a human to know nature. Dickinson not only presents a lack of understanding towards nature, but a detachment on nature’s part. Whilst Dickinson may want to know nature, nature is indifferent towards man, which she shows by explaining nature’s inclination towards the “cool” ground. “Cool”, while literally is about temperature, has connotations with disinterest, aloofness, and distance, and is later reflected in the display of “cordiality” between man and nature – a formal, stilted relationship. The detachment between man and nature shown in ‘A narrow Fellow in the Grass’ is also portrayed in Dickinson’s ‘What mystery pervades a well!’ However, here she uses eerie imagery to convey this; she suggests that nature is alien to her, describing it as “from another world”, and thus it is out of reach to her – although this juxtaposes with her personification of nature as a “neighbour”, which has friendlier, more familiar connotations. The most frightening however is the simile of the “abyss’s face”, which suggests that she cannot really see nature; it is a black hole in her knowledge and understanding of the world, an element of a dark presentation of the relationship between man and nature.
A further presentation is the danger of nature to man, which in ‘A narrow Fellow in the Grass’ is immediately evident, as snakes have deceptive and deadly connotations in the Bible account of the Garden of Eden. Dickinson also describes the movement of the snake as “a Whip lash”; a fast, violent, and unpredictable movement, one which was particularly frightening to her, as she suffered from epilepsy, which made such aggressive, jerking movements more terrifying. Such description is juxtaposed with the “Unbraiding” that comes after, which both reinforces the idea that nature is a mystery to Dickinson, and also further demonstrates how unpredictable nature is, making it therefore, a destructive and dangerous force. It is also within this stanza that the meter changes, and many of the lines become catalectic, which highlights the hazards of nature towards man. Also in ‘A narrow Fellow in the Grass’, Dickinson uses the metaphor of “spotted shaft that is seen”, suggesting that the snake is a weapon of nature. This displays how dangerous nature is; that it uses weaponry, an army against man. This danger is further highlighted by the sibilance of this line, which sounds like the threatening hissing of a snake, and further reiterates Dickinson’s presentation of the danger of nature to man. Despite nature being presented as a danger to man, it is also shown to be a higher power, demonstrating Dickinson’s awe of the natural world. She refers to nature as “Him” with a capital, which suggests it is Godly in her eyes, and has a great power. This further highlights the point that she does not understand nature, as Dickinson, whilst she was religious, did not hold all Christian beliefs, and was unsure of God’s powers. In addition to this, she later in the poem refers to “Nature’s People”, who appear elevated, due to their capitalisation, and seems to have respect for them, regarding them with “cordiality”. This could be both a reference to God’s disciples, and to the missionaries Dickinson was surrounded by, who she respected, despite not understanding them or their ideas, which had her casted out as a ‘no hoper’. In spite this underlying suggestion of conflict in her faith, Dickinson’s likening of nature to God is a powerful metaphor which lifts it, and creates a further distance in the relationship between man and nature.
The elevation of nature is also suggested in ‘A Bird came down the Walk’, but is presented through regal imagery, instead of Biblical. Dickinson describes the bird’s head as “Velvet”, which has connotations with Kings, and conjures up the image of a crown. This displays how highly she thought of nature, and again how distant it was to her, as in America, where she was from, there was no monarchy, so it was something she did not understand. Dickinson was in awe of nature, and the elevation of it amongst her poetry demonstrates this. Dickinson also suggests that perhaps nature is so above her, that she can never reach it; it will never allow her to be a part of it. She explains in ‘A narrow Fellow in the Grass’ how she observed when the “Grass divides” but then goes on to describe how it “closes at your feet”, not allowing her to enter its world. She also writes that she could not “secure it” as it “wrinkled” from her reach, displaying its reluctance to let her near it. This is similarly displayed by Dickinson in her poem ‘A Bird came down the Walk-‘, in which she offers the bird “a Crumb” but he flies “home” , and “Leaps” to be as far from her as possible. Nature being shown purposefully acting to keep her out suggests how frustrated she felt by being unable to connect to nature, as no matter how hard she tried, she never became any closer to it. In this way, Dickinson further presents the relationship between man and nature as greatly distant.
Dickinson sees nature in many ways; she is in awe of nature, she is terrified of nature, she is intrigued by nature, and she is confused by nature. These juxtaposing thoughts show just how great man’s lack of understanding is of the world around, and how far man is from understanding. The key idea Dickinson presents throughout her nature based poetry, is that man and nature are distant beings; no matter how much man may try to reach nature, he will never succeed.
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