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Analysis of the Poem 'Hunting Snake' by Judith Wright

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

Judith Wright

Judith Wright

'Hunting Snake' Poem Summary

'Hunting Snake' is a poem about two people witnessing a wild snake in pursuit of its prey. The event is over in a short time yet their reaction to the snake's presence seems to be profound. Their day is altered, their breath is affected.

This phenomenon, of meeting a snake about its daily business and being in awe, isn't unique to the continent of Australia, where this poem is set.

Think of a snake poem, and the name D.H.Lawrence comes to mind. His longer poem Snake, set in Sicily, is a classic. His snake came for a drink of water, Judith Wright's snake is on the hunt. Quite natural actions you might say, followed by extraordinary human reactions.

Both poems, though very different in form, do share this common ground, and there is the suggestion that Lawrence's earlier poem influenced Judith Wright's.

On first read-through, 'Hunting Snake' appears simple and straightforward. Four stanzas, all quatrains, with regular full rhyme, save for the last stanza. A clear narrative, with a nod to Robert's Frost's sound of sense and rhythm, and relatively easy to understand language.

  • Perhaps this is deceptive because the poem's apparent innocence - two people see a snake - easy on the eye rhyming quatrains - hides the idea of innocence being lost.
  • The speaker and friend/companion/partner, we're never sure, could be just two locals out for a stroll in the Australian outback (countryside). Judith Wright was brought up in New South Wales, her family being pioneers of the New England area, so being 'out in the sticks' was second nature to her.
  • Symbolically, the setting could be the Garden of Eden, the two people Adam and Eve, the snake none other than Satan. It doesn't take much of a stretch to view this poem as a snapshot of a biblical scene - the two humans in awe, their breathing affected, the silent tempter making sure his presence is felt and not forgotten.

A theological interpretation might bring some reward but the essence of the poem is that of wild animal versus reasoning human. Both speaker and companion are affected, they are one in their reaction and it is this fact that reinforces the raw power nature has, the hold it possesses over our psyches.

Judith Wright loved the natural world, and a lot of her poetry reflects this. Some of her bird poems, in particular, are insightful and intuitive. Not only was she a campaigner for a greener world, but she stood up for the native aboriginals in Australia too.

One literary commentator, John Tranter, wrote this of her:

'What she has left us is a spiritual body of writing and a model for a humane and committed concern for the future of the human race.'

'Hunting Snake'

Sun-warmed in this late season’s grace
under the autumn’s gentlest sky
we walked, and froze half-through a pace.
The great black snake went reeling by.

Head down, tongue flickering on the trail
he quested through the parting grass,
sun glazed his curves of diamond scale
and we lost breath to see him pass.

What track he followed, what small food
fled living from his fierce intent,
we scarcely thought; still as we stood
our eyes went with him as he went.

Cold, dark and splendid he was gone
into the grass that hid his prey.
We took a deeper breath of day,
looked at each other, and went on.

Stanza By Stanza Analysis

Hunting Snake is a snapshot of nature, as seen through the eyes of a speaker with a companion out for a walk on what seems to be a calm, warm, sunny and beautiful day.

When the black snake appears things change yes, but the reader isn't taken so deep into the dark undergrowth. There is awe and wonder and pondering, and two pairs of eyes perhaps searching each other for a response, an explanation?

Stanza 1

The first three lines flow rather innocently, with the help of enjambment (lines running into the next without pause); there is an air of tranquility. The tone is light and warm.

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  • Note the sibilance in that first line - Sun-warmed...season's grace...already a pre-hint of a snake appearing?
  • And what about that word grace, related to the Christian religion. A nod to the Garden of Eden and the first man and woman?
  • The third line is paused a little in by a comma (caesura), which makes the reader pause too as the walking couple are stopped in their tracks.

So gone is the safe, cosy feeling with cosy language...Sun-warmed, grace, gentlest...and in its place is coldness with that word froze. The change has started and the fourth line reveals just why.

The previous strongly iambic lines are broken by a three stressed:

  • The great / black snake / went reel / ing by

That second foot is a spondee (double stress), a bit of a shock to the iambic system. The word reeling can mean to be shocked, to lose balance, to be put out of synch. So it seems the speaker thinks the snake isn't really in full control of its body; it's on a lurching mission.

Stanza 2

Enjambment again takes the end of the first stanza straight into the second, so no real pause at all for the reader as the snake shoots past with its tongue flickering, that is, the snake is tasting the air, smelling the prey's scent.

The language reflects the mission and the speaker's impression. With head down, he quested....that word is often associated with medieval knights and chivalry and heroics. Could it be the snake is seen as noble?

And note the emphasis now on gender - the snake is a male. There is no reason given, and we're not told that the couple are female, so the reader remains in the dark.

Yet more language to reinforce the idea that the speaker is in awe of this snake...his curves of diamond scale...this is almost a fashion statement. Diamonds are the hardest, the most expensive stone on earth and here they are on the 'armour' of a snake.

So affected are the couple they lose breath - and with it perhaps a degree of innocence?

Stanza 3

A more reflective stanza, the speaker thinks about the prey, the 'small food' oddly enough described. Perhaps there was no time to rationalise the situation. The snake must have flashed by in such a hurry, yet such a sight it was, the two witnesses couldn't take their eyes off him.

Stanza 4

The speaker describes the snake as cold and dark and splendid as he disappears into the undergrowth (think underworld).

The couple have been in some sort of trance, time and space suspended, their breaths taken away so they have to breathe in that much deeper, to compensate. And that final look into each other's eyes must be significant.

What has changed? What state are they now in? Has the snake's presence made them reflect on the raw power of nature, the idea that a predator chasing a smaller animal in a life or death situation is just an everyday occurrence in nature?

They have to be about their business but the short encounter with the cold, dark, black, fierce, reeling, curvy, questing, diamond-scaled snake is likely to be with them for a long time.

Analysis of Metre

'Hunting Snake' has tetrameter lines, that is, there are four feet to each line, and these are mostly iambic.

A closer look at stanzas one and three will help:

Sun-warmed / in this / late seas / on’s grace
under / the aut / umn’s gentl / est sky
we walked, / and froze / half-through / a pace.
The great / black snake / went reel / ing by.

Only line three is pure iambic tetrameter, with that steady daDUM beat, no stress followed by a stressed syllable.

All the rest break the iambic considerably which means unusual rhythms for the reader, especially in lines 1 and 4.

Line 1 starts off with a trochee (stress/no stress) followed by a pyrrhic (no stress) followed by a spondee (double stress) ending in an iamb. When you read this you can 'feel' the differences; it's anything but settled. Interesting.

Line 4 has that triple stress which emphasises the presence of the snake.

What track / he foll / owed, what / small food
fled liv / ing from / his fierce / intent,
we scarce / ly thought; / still as / we stood
our eyes / went with / him as / he went.

The third stanza has one pure iambic tetrameter line, line 12. You can get that steady beat. Line 1 has a quiet pyrrhic midway, the rest are iambic. Line 2 has a strong spondee to start with, the enjambment from line 1 helping to boost it. Then there's a pyrrhic to calm it down.

The syntax helps to slow matters down as the speaker thinks and the snake makes off.

Rhyme And Poetic/Literary Devices

Hunting Snake is a 16 line poem, split into four stanzas, quatrains. It is a neat, composed-looking poem with a rhyme scheme of:

abab for the first three stanzas, then:

abba for the last stanza.

The end rhymes are mostly full, for example, grace/pace, sky/by but one is a near rhyme, food/stood.


When two or more words in a line start with the same consonant, bringing texture and phonetic interest:

we walked....still as we stood....went with as he went...hid his...


When two or more words close together in a line have similar-sounding vowels:

late season's grace...under the autumn's...tongue flickering from his...with him...hid his...


A pause in a line usually caused by punctuation:

  • we walked, and froze half-through a pace
  • we scarcely thought, still as we stood
  • looked at each other, and went on.


When a line runs on into the next without punctuation, maintaining the meaning so the reader hardly pauses. For example:

Head down, tongue flickering on the trail

he quested through the parting grass,

Internal Rhyme

From line to line and stanza to stanza there are resonances as words rhyme, touch and leave, altering the sounds or strengthening texture. For example:



Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005

Australian Poetry Library

© 2019 Andrew Spacey

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