Analysis of Poem Considering the Snail by Thom Gunn

Updated on August 28, 2018
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Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Thom Gunn
Thom Gunn

Thom Gunn and Considering the Snail

Considering the Snail is Thom Gunn's reflective poem about the movement of a snail through wet grass and over litter.

It begins as simple observation, then moves on to question whether or not the snail has 'fury' before finally weighing up the whole experience with a hypothetical scenario, not a definitive conclusion.

  • Throughout the poem, which is five complete sentences, each line carefully flows into the next, the enjambment a mirror of the physical progress shown by the snail. Punctuation here and there causes the reader to pause, again, just as the snail might in real life.

It is this assured control of pace, together with a sensitive portrayal and imagined final scenario, that sets the poem apart. Thom Gunn first published it in 1961 in the book My Sad Captains and it has since become a popular choice for anthologies.

Whilst the poem bears the unique voice of the poet there are noticeable influences - D.H. Lawrence springs to mind. Both poets through their intuitive grasp of nature seek to examine human experience and reaction by closely following the behaviour of wild creatures.

Considering the Snail parallels the motion of the snail with that of the human. The patient progress and stoicism, the enclosed energy, the gradual build up of a strange momentum all combine to leave the speaker in awe yet puzzled.

The snail knows what he is after - food - and instinctively oozes along his own trail into the moist dark, inspiring the speaker who likens the whole action to something primeval and full of meaning.

  • Some believe the poem a metaphor for the journey of the soul, which can never be fully understood. We are born (pushes through), take our place in society (wood of desire) achieve what we can (drenched there with purpose) and die (thin trail of broken white), never knowing what the future holds.

There are no doubt different interpretations of this poem but one solid fact remains - the form captures the snail's movement. The regular seven syllable lines indicate fluid yet stable progress; enjambment, between lines and stanzas, enhances this natural motion and the near rhymes suggest two worlds(snail and human) not quite enmeshed.

Considering The Snail

The snail pushes through a green

night, for the grass is heavy

with water and meets over

the bright path he makes, where rain

has darkened the earth’s dark. He

moves in a wood of desire,


pale antlers barely stirring

as he hunts. I cannot tell

what power is at work, drenched there

with purpose, knowing nothing.

What is a snail’s fury? All

I think is that if later


I parted the blades above

the tunnel and saw the thin

trail of broken white across

litter, I would never have

imagined the slow passion

to that deliberate progress.

Stanza by Stanza Analysis of Considering the Snail

By choosing the movement of the snail the poet focuses in on the sensual world, where the slow changing of shape parallels the physicality of being human, experiencing the body as it adapts to its surroundings.

First Stanza

The speaker is observing a snail as it hunts for food in the dark. It's been raining and the earth, including the grass, is wet. In contrast, the snail creates a bright path which stands out against the darkened earth.

Note the language, how it paints a picture - green, bright, dark - and suggests motion - pushes, meets, moves - whilst the form - short lines with some punctuation and enjambment - encourages slow reading.

So the hermaphrodite snail, a single muscle, steers into the dark green night. He is not alone. A human is watching and recording, noting the intent.

Second Stanza

Those antlers - tentacles - are stalks that help the snail see and taste. As he moves along, the speaker is moved to question the force that drives the snail on. The speaker becomes an 'I' for the first time, representing the human world with its insistence on knowing and articulating and reducing.

The energy of the snail must surely carry emotion along with it? This is the basis for the speaker's extraordinary question What is a snail's fury? Must a snail have fury - all that pent-up passion implies that there should be a release of some kind.

But this question projects human traits onto the instinctive snail. Fury is an emotion only humans know.

Third Stanza

Enjambment again between these stanzas means that all of the previous observation and thinking flows into the final sentence.

The speaker now imagines what he would have made of the broken white trail had he not seen the snail beforehand.

All of that passion, that steadfast motion onwards, has somehow dissipated, leaving only the dry slime and a speaker who knows the separateness of the two worlds yet wants to understand the snail's desire.

There is empathy for this humble creature but also a burning need to know how this snail carries around such élan vital. The speaker's initial objectivity gradually changes into puzzlement and wonder.

Poetical Devices Used in Considering The Snail

Considering the Snail contains the following poetical devices:

Alliteration

When words beginning with consonants are close together in a line they are said to alliterate, producing texture and sound echo:

with water...darkened the earth's dark...he hunts...what power is at work...knowing nothing...think is that...the thin

Assonance

When the vowels in proximate words are the same. Again, this deepens the phonetic experience for the reader:

makes, where rain...knowing nothing...

Caesura

When punctuation causes the reader to pause as they read a line. Natural caesura often occur in longer lines of poetry but this isn't the case in this particular poem.

So punctuated caesura occur in lines 2,4,5,8,9,10,11,16...these tend to slow the reading down, mirroring the movement of the snail.

Enjambment

If a line has no punctuation and continues on into the next line with no loss of meaning then that line is said to be enjambed. This poem is full of enjambment - there is only two lines with punctuation at the end - creating a sense of slow onward progression.

Basic Rhyme Analysis of Considering The Snail

Considering The Snail is a free verse poem, three equal stanzas totalling 18 lines, each line containing 7 syllables.

There is no set rhyme scheme as such but some lines connect through pararhyme:

green/rain...heavy/He...over/desire...stirring/nothing...tell/All...there/later...above/have...thin/passion...across/progress.

© 2018 Andrew Spacey

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    • chef-de-jour profile imageAUTHOR

      Andrew Spacey 

      11 months ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

      Gunn's humble snail poem is a lesson for all poets in how to look, see and learn. Be curious and let nature inspire! Ciaou.

    • snakeslane profile image

      Verlie Burroughs 

      11 months ago from Canada

      I'm impressed that there is so much to understand in this poem. Thanks again for all your insight. Your work is essential reading for a wanna be poet/writer.

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