poems sent from dickinson to higginson

Thomas Johnson's Note on Poem 986

MANUSCRIPTS: There are two fair copies. That reproduced above, in packet 88 (Bingham 53a), was written in 1865. The other copy (H B 193), written about 1872, is incorporated in a note to Sue:

A narrow Fellow in the Grass
Occasionally rides-
You may have met him? Did you not
His notice instant 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-
But when a Boy and Barefoot
I more than once at Noon

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.

A question mark is here substituted for the dash in line 3, and two words are variant:

4. sudden] instant
11. Yet] But

The note to Sue makes no comment about the poem. It merely says:

Loo and Fanny will come tonight, but need that make a difference? Space is as the Presence-

Thus one learns that the cousins Louise and Frances Norcross were expected, and infers that Sue had just sent a note to inquire whether she might make an evening call and whether ED would send her a copy of the poem, which she obviously knew well.

PUBLICATION: This is the poem which, titled "The Snake," had been anonymously published on 14 February 1866 in the columns of the Springfield Daily Republican. The fact that Sue lacked a copy tends to confirm the conjecture that it was Sue who had forwarded her own copy to Samuel Bowles because he had expressed his admiration for it. "How did that girl ever know that a boggy field wasn't good for corn?" he is reported to have exclaimed (FF, 27). The impression that Sue's copy was used is strengthened by ED's comment to T. W. Higginson in a letter to him, postmarked 17 March 1866. She evidently enclosed a clipping from the Republican, protesting:

Lest you meet my Snake and suppose I deceive it was robbed of me-defeated too of the third line by the punctuation. The third and fourth were one-I had told you I did not print-I feared you might think me ostensible.

No copy of "The Snake" survives among the Higginson papers, but the inference is inescapable that she must have sent him a copy since he would otherwise not have penetrated the anonymity of the published poem. The Republican had printed the poem as three 8-line stanzas and had rendered the third and fourth lines

You may have met him His notice instant is.

Otherwise the text conforms to that of the packet copy. When the poem was again issued in Poems (1891), 142-143, titled "The Snake," the editors followed the packet copy by the readings "sudden" (line 4) and "Yet" (line 11), but they too introduced a comma at the end of line 3:

You may have met him, His notice sudden is.

In CP (1924), and in all subsequent gatherings, the reading of the lines compounded the error by substituting a question mark for the final comma in line 3:

You may have met him, His notice sudden is.

The 1872 version to Sue makes perfectly clear ED's intention regarding the way she expected the lines to be read. Two words were altered in Poems (1891) and later printings:

11. Boy] child
12. Noon] morn

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Commentary copyright 1998 by Martha Nell Smith, all rights reserved
Maintained by Lara Vetter <lv26@umail.umd.edu>
Last updated on September 2, 1998