The Snake by D H Lawrence
The Snake is a narrative poem written by the American poet and novelist D H Lawrence. Written in first person narrative technique, it recounts the poet’s memory of a hot day in Sicily when he encountered a snake. In the poem, the poet is at his water-trough to fetch a pitcher of water when he sees the snake drinking from the trough. What follows is the poet’s internal struggle and realisation of his sentiments and faults as we drop into the scene with the magnificent and deadly golden snake.
The text of the poem is divided into nineteen stanzas of irregular length. It is written in free verse and thus has no rhyme scheme, but it makes up for it with the prodigal use of assonance, consonance and alliteration.
D H Lawrence is known to challenge social conventions and to question arbitrary norms and this poem is a perfect example of it. The poet questions social teachings and explores the intricacies of human thought and action. The snake is a well anthologized poem and displays the poet’s concerns of man’s distancing from nature. The poem is also filled with subtle allusions to religious themes. Some critics argue that ‘The snake’ by Lawrence has a few similarities to the tale of Adam and Eve, in that both deal with what is called ‘moral corruption.’
Stanza wise Explanation of the poem ‘The Snake’
“A snake came to my water-trough
On a hot, hot day, and I in pyjamas for the heat,
To drink there.
The poem begins with the subject matter of the poem, that is the snake. The poet was living in Sicily at the time when the poem was written and is recounting the memory of a hot day when he was wearing his pajamas. He says that a snake came to his water trough that very day to drink water.
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.”
The poet had gone to his water-trough to fill a pitcher with water. The trough was shaded by a dark carob tree and the place had a strange smell. As he came down the steps he realized that he must wait and stand aside as there was a snake already at the trough.
“He reached down from a fissure in the earth-wall in the gloom
And trailed his yellow-brown slackness soft-bellied down, over the edge of
the stone trough
And rested his throat upon the stone bottom,
And where the water had dripped from the tap, in a small clearness,
He sipped with his straight mouth,
Softly drank through his straight gums, into his slack long body,
In the third stanza the poet describes the movement of the snake. He says that the snake came down from a fissure (crack) in the mud wall of his house. The poet further says that the snake trailed along to the edge of the stone trough. Here he makes rich use of words to describe the snake’s movement. The words ‘yellow-brown slackness’ and ‘soft-bellied’ invoke a vivid picture of the snake in our mind.
The snake slowly slithered towards the bottom of the stone trough and started drinking with what the poet calls his ‘straight mouth’ the water that had dripped down from the tap. In the last line of the stanza, he again says ‘the snake drank water through his slack gums into his slack long body silently.’
We can see a good use of alliteration (and sibilance) in this line with the repetition of the sound ‘s’ which is perhaps intentional on the poet’s part to perhaps mimic the snake’s hissing.
“Someone was before me at my water-trough,
And I, like a second comer, waiting.”
The fourth stanza is a fairly short one and only repeats what the poet has said before. The poet here emphasizes that someone was at ‘His’ water trough and that he was standing there as a second. This suggests that the snake’s presence is, naturally, not at all welcome by the poet.
“He lifted his head from his drinking, as cattle do,
And looked at me vaguely, as drinking cattle do,
And flickered his two-forked tongue from his lips, and mused a moment,
And stooped and drank a little more,
Being earth-brown, earth-golden from the burning bowels of the earth
On the day of Sicilian July, with Etna smoking.”
After a while, even as the poet was staring at the snake, it lifted its head from drinking like that of a cow or a buffalo watching the poet with indifference. The snake flickered his forked tongue in the air between his lips, paused for a moment as if thinking, stooped down and drank some more water. The snake appeared to the poet very thirsty.
In the following lines the poet describes the snake as a creature of earth-brown, earth-golden colour. He further says that it was a very hot day in the month of July in Sicily. The Mount Etna was smoking. Mount Etna is a natural volcano on the Sicilian island of Italy and the poet lived around this region when the episode in the poem took place.
“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.”
As he saw the snake drinking water from his trough, the poet’s mind urged him to kill it. To him the snake was a danger as he knew that in Sicily the black snakes were harmless, but the golden ones were highly venomous and thus deadly. As we live, we gather experiences, be it our own or those from others and these help us in guiding our way through life. The poet too knows from his experience that golden snakes are venomous and thus he calls it ‘the voice of (my) education.’
“And voices in me said, If you were a man
You would take a stick and break him now, and finish him off.”
We feel a natural repulsion to fear and all things that convey it. The fear of reptiles, and in particular snakes is so rooted in most people that their first response upon seeing one is to kill it. The poet is no stranger to this instinct. And so, when he saw the golden-brown snake, he perceived it to be a mortal threat. His mind was convincing him to gather courage and kill the snake. The words ‘finish him off’ show us how deeply repulsed the poet was at the snake’s very presence.
“But must I confess how I liked him,
How glad I was he had come like a guest in quiet, to drink at my water-trough
And depart peaceful, pacified, and thankless,
Into the burning bowels of this earth?”
The poet, however, confesses that he liked the snake and that he was glad to have encountered him. The fearful, it should seem, is often fascinating. We might here recall our own childhood memories of visiting zoological parks and sanctuaries to better understand the poet’s predicament. The reader might have experienced the thrill of gazing upon majestic beasts such as lions, tigers, bears and even snakes. We fear such creatures and are also fascinated with them. The poet here feels the same way about the snake. He is afraid of him and wants to kill him, but at the same time is also glad to have seen him.
But more than that, the poet sees the snake as a guest who had come to drink at his water trough to cool himself and returned into the ground where it came from without making any noise. The words ‘peaceful’, ‘pacified’, and ‘thankless’ here are worth pondering upon. The poet feels a kind of satisfaction that his trough helped the poor snake.
“Was it cowardice, that I dared not kill him? Was it perversity that I longed to talk to him?
Was it humility, to feel so honoured?
I felt so honoured.”
The urge to kill the snake and the fascination with him keeping the poet from doing so are the two thoughts in mutiny with each other in the poet’s mind which he expresses in this stanza. He is in a state of dilemma as to how he should act. He does not know if it was out of cowardice on his part that he did not kill the snake or if it was his fascination which stopped him. The poet here realises that his fascination is with a dangerous thing like snake which is capable of killing him and thus he calls it his ‘perversity’ (irrationality).
He says that he longed to talk to the snake, as if he wished to know more about him and to keep looking at him. He doesn’t know if it was out of humility that he considered himself honoured to have been visited by a poor creature like the serpent and did not kill him. We can clearly see the poet’s internal struggle in this and the subsequent stanzas towards how he should have acted with the snake.
“And yet those voices:
If you were not afraid, you would kill him!”
The voices in the poet’s mind were still saying to him that if he were not afraid, he would have killed the snake. The fears were present in the back of his mind. This stanza further elevates the tension of the internal struggle of the poet in the eyes of the reader.
“And truly I was afraid, I was most afraid, But even so, honoured still more
That he should seek my hospitality
From out the dark door of the secret earth.”
The poet admits that he was afraid of the snake; that he was utterly scared at the sight of him. But even so, the poet felt honoured at the same time that the snake had chosen his house to have a drink of water and had come all the way from the bowels of the earth. The poet here sees the snake not as an unwelcome intruder, but as a guest who had come seeking what he calls his ‘hospitality’.
“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,
And slowly turned his head,
And slowly, very slowly, as if thrice adream,
Proceeded to draw his slow length curving round
And climb again the broken bank of my wall-face.”
The snake drank with much satisfaction and pacified himself. Then he lifted his head slowly in a dreamy fashion like that of a drunken man. He flickered his tongue again. The poet here uses the simile ‘like a forked night on air’ to relate the darkness of the snake’s tongue. The snake licked his lips, looked around and very slowly started moving away from the trough. Here again a simile is used in ‘looked around like a god’ because the snake was carefree and least bothered about the fact that a mortal human being was waiting for his turn into the trough, as if he was not seeing it.
He began climbing the wall-face of the poet’s house to exit the place. The snake’s movement is here described as very slow and languid in contrast to how snakes are generally portrayed. Perhaps this is because the day was very hot and it was exhausted or that the poet simply want the snake to stand out as different from other snakes or even that he was so engrossed in viewing the snake that he could see every single small detail and aspect.
“And as he put his head into that dreadful hole,
And as he slowly drew up, snake-easing his shoulders, and entered farther,
A sort of horror, a sort of protest against his withdrawing into that horrid black hole,
Deliberately going into the blackness, and slowly drawing himself after,
Overcame me now his back was turned.”
The snake started retreating. He put his head in a hole in the wall of the poet’s house. He slowly crawled, moving his body behind him and entering further inside. Here the poet uses a curious expression ‘snake-easing his shoulders’ to mean easing his way inside the hole. The poet witnessed a sort of horror and protest as he saw him sneaking his way slowly inside the dark hole. The snake was deliberately going inside the darkness and the poet almost wished him to stay. We can see that the poet is transfixed by the snake.
“I looked round, I put down my pitcher,
I picked up a clumsy log
And threw it at the water-trough with a clatter.”
The poet looked around himself and put his pitcher down. He picked up a log of wood which was lying around and threw it forcefully at the trough in a desperate attempt to make the snake stop from going into the darkness.
“I think it did not hit him,
But suddenly that part of him that was left behind convulsed in undignified haste.
Writhed like lightning, and was gone
Into the black hole, the earth-lipped fissure in the wall-front,
At which, in the intense still noon, I stared with fascination.”
The poet when recounting the tale is unsure is the log hit the snake. He however believes that it most probably did not. But as he threw the log the part of the snake that was trailing behind him suddenly convulsed in a rapid motion. It twisted and came up close to itself and in another moment was gone. The motion of the snake was as fast as lightning and he disappeared in a second. The poet stood alone in the intense afternoon with fascination gazing at the hole into which the snake had disappeared.
“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.”
The poet straightaway regretted what he had done. He thought of it as a paltry, vulgar and mean act and he scorned himself for it. The poet is ashamed at what society has taught him to do: to kill innocent life without any thought. He despised himself and his instinct and his ‘accursed human education’ which led him to believe that the snake must be killed.
“And I thought of the albatross
And I wished he would come back, my snake.”
The poet compares his situation with the poem Albatross by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in which the sailor kills an albatross and regrets his act, wishing he wouldn’t have done so. He wishes that the snake would come back to him.
“For he seemed to me again like a king,
Like a king in exile, uncrowned in the underworld,
Now due to be crowned again.”
The Snake seemed to the poet like a king: in fact a king in exile. The poet is here glorifying the snake by calling him a king in exile uncrowned in underworld. The snake is indeed a magnificent and powerful animal who rules over the soil. Now the poet feels that the snake should be crowned, should be given the importance it deserves.
“And so, I missed my chance with one of the lords
And I have something to expiate:
In this manner in the last stanza the poet concludes by saying that he missed a chance of meeting with one of the lords of life and must now apologise for his own lack of concern and his petty behaviour with the snake.