‘Snake’ is probably D. H. Lawrence’s best-known poem. Lawrence wrote ‘Snake’ while he was living on the island of Sicily, in the beautiful resort, Taormina, on the east side of the island. ‘Snake’ is conversational in tone, which makes it reasonably accessible; nevertheless, some words of analysis on the poem’s language and meaning may be useful.
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.
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,
Someone was before me at my water-trough,
And I, like a second-comer, waiting.
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.
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.
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?
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.
And yet those voices:
If you were not afraid, you would kill him!
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.
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.
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.
I looked round, I put down my pitcher,
I picked up a clumsy log
And threw it at the water-trough with a clatter.
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.
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.
For he seemed to me again like a king,
Like a king in exile, uncrowned in the underworld,
Now due to be crowned again.
And so, I missed my chance with one of the lords
And I have something to expiate:
D. H. Lawrence’s free verse is very different from the kind we find in that of his fellow modernists and contemporaries, Richard Aldington, Hilda Doolittle, and T. E. Hulme (among others). Instead of following the French vers libre style, Lawrence’s free verse has more in common with the free verse of the Psalms and Walt Whitman. Yet we should not think that the freer-flowing, more colloquial style of Lawrence’s free verse means his poem is simply ‘prose chopped up’ (a common charge against much free verse, and in some cases deserved), or that the poem comprises simple assertions which require no further commentary or explanation. The language is not self-consciously ‘poetic’ in some respects; but it still has the denseness we associate with poetry.
Take those opening lines:
A snake came to my water-trough
On a hot, hot day, and I in pyjamas for the heat,
To drink there.
The words are straightforward, but the wording is not. Although we can understand that both the snake and the speaker (whom we might tentatively take to be Lawrence himself) have come to the water-trough to drink, the syntax of Lawrence’s lines refuses to come out and say this plainly. The clause ‘and I in pyjamas for the heat’ is dropped in without Lawrence clearly signalling the relationship between his actions and the snake’s: the snake has come to the trough to drink (it is hot, after all), and Lawrence, because of the heat, is in his pyjamas, but to whom does that third line, ‘To drink there’, refer? To the snake, or to Lawrence? Or both? There is an uneasiness to the phrasing here, which immediately establishes the uneasy relationship between Lawrence and the snake, which the rest of the poem will seek to explore and analyse. Is the snake dangerous? Does it pose any threat to the poet? Should he kill it, just in case?
The subsequent lines, in summary, make it clear that the snake is there to drink, and so is Lawrence. Lawrence’s gendering, and anthropomorphising, of the snake as ‘he’ stages a masculine battle (or stand-off – well, if snakes could stand, anyway) between him and the snake, two males facing off against one another. (Lawrence also refers to how the snake ‘mused’ as it drank at the trough, another piece of anthropomorphising.) Since this snake is yellow-brown in colour rather than black, and the ‘gold [snakes] are venomous’ on Sicily, Lawrence feels that he should kill the snake so that he will be safe from it. Enacting a sort of inner drama, an interior monologue where he takes on the roles of both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth, taunting himself over his masculinity (‘if you were a man / You would take a stick and break him now, and finish him off’).
Indeed, Lawrence feels a certain kinship with the snake. He wonders if he was too cowardly to lash out and kill the snake. Was it cowardice? He doesn’t think so – indeed, he felt ‘honoured’ that the snake had opted to be his ‘guest’, drinking at his trough – but the nagging doubt persists in his mind. Is he a coward? What stopped him killing the animal: fondness for it, or his own cowardice?
No: he concludes that, although he was afraid to kill it, his delight in the snake having chosen to grace his presence, and his water-trough, outweighed his fear. But as he watches it retreating from the trough, the horror at this deadly beast prompted him to pick up a nearby log and hurl it at the snake. He misses; and immediately regrets having tried to harm the animal. ‘I despised myself and the voices of my accursed human education’: those ‘voices’ are the so-called ‘civilised’ voices of Lawrence’s upbringing, when we are taught self-preservation and to watch out for danger, guarding ourselves against it at all costs. We are also warned about dangerous and deadly animals and taught to fear them, driving a wedge between us and them and preventing us from seeing them as our fellow creatures (sharks are another good example). Lawrence recalls the albatross from Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the killing of which brought down a curse upon the mariner and his ship and crew.
D. H. Lawrence concludes ‘Snake’ by expressing the opinion that the snake seemed grand and noble, like a king in exile: the implication being that animals have been forced to live subservient to humans, who see themselves as ‘kings’ of the world. But creatures like the snake are the true king – a once and future king, for Lawrence, ready to be crowned again. In this respect, Lawrence anticipates the move towards greater awareness of animals’ sentience and more powerful support for animal rights over the last century. He ends by seeing his treatment of the snake as ‘pettiness’, which he needs to ‘expiate’ or make amends for. Perhaps many of us have similar reparations to make.
Would you believe I’ve not read this poem before? Surprising find! I particularly like the way you’ve brought out the zeugma which actually works and has a purpose in setting up that ambiguous relationship with the snake. Not many examples which work so well so I shall use this with my students!
I also wonder if Lawrence is turning religious thinking on its head here too? Perhaps I’m reading too much into it but obviously the snake is associate with great evil from the Garden of Eden but I also find myself making parallels with Jesus and the woman at the well – which at the time also turned religious conventions upside down. Here, Lawrence is paying respect and honour to a creature deemed repulsive, dangerous and the epitome of evil at the time of the poem’s writing. Is he gently pointing a finger at the church here and saying “you’ve got it wrong?”….
Thanks, Ken! Excellent point about the woman at the well. I hadn’t considered that but as you say, combined with the Old Testament story of the serpent, he seems to be salvaging the snake from centuries of opprobrium. Lawrence had a complicated relationship with religion, but I don’t think he had much time for the finger-wagging of organised Christianity!
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