the working method

We’ll start with translating the poem into a language of your own choice. Being fluent in English you may be inclined to skip this first step, but that is exactly what Judith Farr did by approaching this poem as a native speaker. Considering the result, there is absolutely no harm in trying the basics first, and to rewrite the poem into less poetic English at the very least. And don’t expect me to do the job for you, because explaining a poem is like explaining a joke : it is allowed, provided one doesn’t. But even when using the dictionary on every single word (just my luck ; I randomly picked the Dutch one), these few lines are dealt with in no time. No reason then to shrink back for the labour. Just take good care of context, because a haphazard choice of synonyms is not going to be much of a help :

(untitled)

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

Apply this exercise on the remaining twenty lines as well, and this poem may duly reveal itself, meaning and all. Just by the effort of reading it carefully. Which, incidentally, is the name of the game in making sense of any text. If the text makes sense to begin with, of course. Despite the lacking comma, this one does. And you have in any case noticed that ‘notice’ is the only word that causes some trouble (hence the mistake of JF). Picking one’s choice from its wide range of meanings triggers some pondering on the word’s context, and a change of punctuation makes a difference to that context. The punctuation therefore makes a difference to the choice, which implies a difference of meaning. If not for the entire poem, then at least for its opening stanza.

Putting this logic to the test, one better takes no chances with the context, and provides for its poetry. Just my luck then, that, from all dictionaries, I had to pick the one that is nobody’s free random choice. But having exercised as recommended, you will doubtlessly recognize the proper substitute for ‘notice’ better from the original poem, than I’ll be ever able to rephrase it in the language of my ancestors. The way Dickinson plays with rhyme, for instance, stood no chance. No harm done to context, fortunately, but it would be a shame not to notice :

De Slang                                                              (zonder titel) 

Een smalle Makker in het Gras                         Een smalle Makker in het Gras
Bij gelegenheid soms rijdt —                             Bij gelegenheid soms rijdt —
U trof Hem misschien — was het niet,             U trof Hem misschien — was het niet
Zijn ………… plotsklaps is.                                   Zijn ………… plotsklaps is —

The Grass divides as with a Comb —                Het Gras dat scheidt als met een Kam —
A spotted shaft is seen —                                    Toont een gevlekte schacht —
And then it closes at your feet                           En sluit zich dan weer aan uw voet
And opens further on —                                      En opent verderop —

The four lines of interest do readily call a snake to mind. And if a comparision of punctuation fails make you think otherwise, you are still on equal terms with the leading experts. The sequel is, of course, not really designed to consider another protagonist. Not with a copperhead to start suddenly away from your feet. And to beat the experts at their own game, we’ll have to resort to another basic exercise in careful reading. One that my old school had labelled ‘text explanation’. Those days it used to be a questionary, which included the occasional give-away like ‘who rides occasionally in the grass?’

answer : …………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

One cannot pen down the unauthorized title, without giving the matter a second thought. And this second thought alone, is reason enough to question the title’s authority. No matter how obvious the choice seems to be. ‘Question everything’, is in science the basic state of mind. When Literature Studies offers an explanation for Dickinson’s choice of words that crushes doubt’s head, it therefore cannot be accepted with due grace :

‘Rides’ sounds like ‘glides’ and ‘writhes’ but gives the impression that the snake is being carried, or that it is floating along. In addition, the word can also mean torment, harass, or tease, and this definition fits the snake’s reputation as a sly tempter.

author unknown

Instead, we notice that ‘occasionally’ does not fit in with this explanation ; snakes are not really known for changes of attitude. And with that behavioral anomaly in mind, the opening line of that same anonymous explanation reads as a downright contradiction : “In the opening quatrain, Dickinson cleverly disguises the subject of the poem, a snake.”

If Dickinson really disguises the poem’s subject in a clever way, rather than transparently, she has to disguise her subject AS a snake. And a poem that in fact deals with a narrow fellow who occasionally crosses the meadow by horse, leaves not much of a choice in likely candidates. You may therefore, instead of the title, have written a certain name on the dotted line. In which case you have declared the snake a metaphor. As a result, the inserted comma behind ‘did you not’ at the instant alters the meaning of the entire poem. Which it does by erasing the metaphor. Without this comma the couplet may prove itself a nasty tongue twister, but at least one that places its seven final words against the encounter : ‘only if you have never met him, you’ll notice suddenly that the moment has come.’ Not quite a remark that is often made about copperheads.

He likes a Boggy Acre                                         Hij blieft een Zompig Maailand
A Floor too cool for Corn —                              Een Vloer te kil voor Graan —
Yet when a Boy, and Barefoot —                       Maar als een Joch, en Blootsvoets —
I more than once at Noon                                  Zag ‘k meer dan eens rond Twaalf —

Have passed, I thought, a Whip lash                Op pad, dacht ik, een Zweepkoord
Unbraiding in the Sun                                         Ontvlechtend in de Zon
When stooping to secure it                                Dan bukkend om ‘t te pakken
It wrinkled and was gone —                               Het plooide en was weg —

The copperhead favours a pasture that humans tend to avoid if their footwear is no good. Which evokes in the close ecounter at the poem’s centre a powerful image of total surprise.

Several of Nature’s People                                 Van de Natuur zo menig Landvolk
I know, and they know me —                             Ken ik, en zij ook mij —
I feel for them a transport                                  Ik voel voor hen een zondvloed
Of cordiality —                                                     Van warme hart’lijkheid —

But never met this Fellow,                                 Maar nimmer trof die Makker,
Attended, or alone                                               Met oppas, of alleen
Without a tighter breathing                               Zonder beklemde adem
And Zero at the Bone —                                      En Noppes aan het Been —

One explanation has the final line to express a sense of nakedness (of the leg = barefoot) against the imminent danger (of a bite). An interpretation that is fully covered by my translation’s ‘Been’ (= leg ; = bone). But definitely not by an English dictionary that is worth calling so. The anonymous scholar who crushed doubt’s head, on the other hand, is no man’s fool :

“The final line contains a brilliant metaphor, for the term ‘Zero at the Bone’ describes both bone-chilling terror and absolute nothingness.”

This is as good as an expert can get. But still, the ‘metaphor’ rather is a well phrased riddle. By all means brilliant, but to appreciate the final line’s quality in full, it must be read in the light of the real metaphor. Then it will evoke an image that can’t be seen without having noticed this metaphor. And the moment this image appears, you will have to admit that the added comma alters the meaning of the entire poem.

Which has to be demonstrated.

Go to part 2 – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – back to the previous chapter