Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.
The 'Snake' and D.H. Lawrence
'Snake' is one of D.H. Lawrence's best animal poems, written during a stay at Fontana Vecchia in Taormina, Sicily, in 1923. It explores the relationship between humans and one of the most feared reptiles on earth—a venomous snake.
- The meeting of human and snake is very much a personal event, Lawrence himself taking the lead role. He is the person at the water-trough when the viper appears.
- What makes the poem special is the way the speaker's observations are interwoven with internal thoughts and feelings—the content perfectly matches the form, which is sinewy free verse.
D.H. Lawrence is best known for his novel writing—classics such as Sons and Lovers, Women in Love and the controversial Lady Chatterley's Lover—but he started out as a poet.
A prolific, versatile writer, he also wrote many fine short stories, a mixed bag of travel books, essays and plays. In his prime, he was arguably the foremost writer of fiction in the English-speaking world. Quite a feat for the son of a coal miner from the coalfields of Nottinghamshire, close to Sherwood Forest in England.
Lawrence and his wife Frieda led a restless, nomadic life together, moving from country to country over a time span of roughly 18 years. Cornwall, Italy, Germany, Sri Lanka, Australia, and the USA—Lawrence published his books and lived a frugal existence for most of his life until he succumbed to TB in France in 1930.
Lawrence's poetry ranges from the poor to the sublime. He wrote his poems, as always, as he felt. Although many are simply deep passionate rantings about society and industry, a select few rise above the rest and are recognised as great poems.
'Snake' is one such creation. Wherever Lawrence traveled, he noted down his observations on Nature and wrote some of the finest modern animal poems. This poem blends form and content into an authentic whole, and the rhythms reflect the movement of a snake as it coils and stretches its way into the reader's mind.
If you want an introduction to his poetry, start with his Nature poems, for they reflect a true intuitive grasp of Nature's inner workings. Read 'Baby Tortoise', 'Eagle in New Mexico', 'Elephant' and 'Kangaroo', and follow Lawrence's eye as he takes you into the creature's soul and beyond.
Hopefully, this analysis will help you find new meanings within the poem.
Four Crucial Points to the Poem's Success
This poem's success is achieved through:
- Form: Length of line within a series of free verse lines has the reader slowing down, building up tension and rounding corners, reflecting the unusually strong yet flowing movement of the snake. A more formal rhyming scheme would not have worked as well.
- Device: Lawrence uses just enough sibilance, alliteration and assonance and internal rhyme to reinforce the reptile's presence and keep the reader involved in the resonant language. Enjambment—when a line carries on to the next with no punctuation—helps to bring suspense and a feeling of altered breathing/rhythm.
- Passages of Observation: The poet's use of specific figurative words and phrases to help paint a picture of this creature enhances the whole poem.
- Voices: The narrator is divided between respect and honour on the one hand and fear and loathing on the other. This sets up a tense energy within the poem lasting almost from the first few lines to the last.
Line-by-Line Analysis of the Poem
Snake is a very interesting animal poem because it can be read on several levels. Although Lawrence wrote many direct, straightforward poems, this one, like the snake, needs a careful approach.
Here are the first six lines. It starts with a simple scene, the water trough.
A snake came to my water-trough
On a hot, hot day, and I in pyjamas for the heat,
To drink there.
In the deep, strange-scented shade of the great dark carob tree
I came down the steps with my pitcher
And must wait, must stand and wait, for there he was at the trough before me.
- A read-through of the first 20 lines reveals on the surface, a man meeting a snake at a water-trough, accepting that the snake 'was at the trough before me', so he the man, must wait.
- You can picture Lawrence coming to the water hole on a warm early morning, still in pyjamas, and having to queue for his drink. A very English thing to do. And the narrator is so polite, giving the snake space to drink first. After all, the snake is a local and the narrator only a tourist, so it should take precedence.
- The way the poem develops, with varying metre (meter) and line length, plus occasional alliteration—strange scented shade—mirrors the slow movement of a slithering snake beautifully. As the man waits voices arise within him and begin to battle for supremacy. Should he kill the snake? Was he a coward for not doing so?
- Contrastingly, there is a part of the man attracted to this reptile 'come like a guest in quiet'. Why should he destroy such a wonderful creature?
What strikes me as a reader is the wonderful detail of observation Lawrence expresses, so typical of him in his many first-class animal poems. Here is one such part of a line:
trailed his yellow-brown slackness soft-bellied down . . .
This poem demands a closer look simply because it is written by a writer who, in his time, helped redefine social attitudes towards religion, the natural world and sex.
Lawrence describes the way the snake moves down from the earth-wall near the tap and how it rests to drink.
Note the use of assonance (when two vowels in proximate words rhyme) in line 9:
And rested his throat upon the stone bottom,
He has to wait as the snake slowly sips water, looking at him, its tongue flickering. All the while, the July heat beats down and Etna smokes in the distance.
In line 22, the narrative changes:
The voice of my education said to me
He must be killed,
For in Sicily the black, black snakes are innocent, the gold are venomous.
And voices in me said, If you were a man
You would take a stick and break him now, and finish him off.
- Human meets snake. Where in world literature does that occur most significantly? In the biblical myth of the Garden of Eden, where Eve is tempted by a serpent to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. In the poem the snake is not a tempter however, nor is it referred to as evil but the narrator does pose the question of whether or not it should be killed—an act inspired by those voices of accursed human education, i.e. a religious upbringing?
Was it perversity that I longed to talk to him . . .
- There's a tension set up by these various voices within the narrative. One wants to kill the snake, the other wants to honour it. The former is born of superiority, the latter of equality. In the constant war between humans and nature, the snake is seen as little more than vermin, something to fear, loathe, and ultimately destroy. yet what would be the consequences of extermination?
- Lawrence's poem captures this dilemma and puts it before the reader in vivid human and environmental terms. Coming across a poisonous snake in Sicily is not all that rare; meeting a snake that has come for a drink at a shared water trough is something special. Water is the life-giver, the man (the human) the potential life taker.
- Mount Etna's distant eruptions add a powerful backdrop. A God of the Underworld has arrived, and both man and earth are trembling, barely able to control their passions. Lawrence had written Fantasia of the Unconscious just a year previous and the resonance between the darker hidden forces within the mind and those of the snake, a lord of life . . . an uncrowned king . . . from out the dark door of the secret earth . . . are hard to ignore.
There are some powerfully crafted lines in this part of the poem. The syntax—the way the words are put together within a clause—and enjambment—line endings flowing on into the next line—work together to produce a mesmerising effect.
He drank enough
And lifted his head, dreamily, as one who has drunken,
And flickered his tongue like a forked night on the air, so black,
Seeming to lick his lips,
And looked around like a god, unseeing, into the air,
Writhed like lightning, and was gone
Into the black hole, the earth-lipped fissure in the wall-front, . . .
- The narrator now concedes that this snake, this male reptile, seems to him like a god, a lordly creature of mythology, which, having sipped his fill, slowly slithers back into the dark.
'Snake' has the ongoing conflict between humans and nature as its main theme. It raises huge questions about our relationships with animals, of how we are to continue to exist with nature intact, as opposed to totally destroyed.
This poem also raises issues regarding our modern-day individual responses to animals often regarded as 'vermin'.
Creatures that go about their daily business in their natural environment have to put up with increased human interference and habitat destruction - sharing sometimes isn't an option.
D.H. Lawrence showed with his poem 'Snake' that it is possible to not only share with wild animals but to show tolerance and understanding.
Summary and Comparison
Having thrown the log at the snake in a fit of pique, the speaker realises his mistake.
And immediately I regretted it.
I thought how paltry, how vulgar, what a mean act!
I despised myself and the voices of my accursed human education.
And I thought of the albatross,
And I wished he would come back, my snake.
He could well have fatally injured this wild creature and, like the sailor in S.T. Coleridge's 'Rime of the Ancient Mariner', suffered nightmare visions and other agonies for using his crossbow to kill the Albatross.
And I done a hellish thing,
And it would work 'em woe:
For all averred, I had killed the bird
That made the breeze to blow.
In the end, the educated voices that encouraged this violent act are seen as 'accursed', which is another way of saying—I was wrong to throw that lump of wood but couldn't really help myself. Why? I'd been conditioned to view snakes as bad, better dead than alive.
Snake has something in it for everyone. It's a simple clash between a man and an animal, a scenario acted out a million times a day worldwide. It's a subtle story of how a human reacts to a venomous creature born to slither on the ground, live in the dark, and swallow its prey whole.
Perhaps this poem's real significance lies in the questions it raises about how we as people face up to the moral challenges the natural world brings.
© 2013 Andrew Spacey