By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Black Snake’ is a 1979 poem by the American poet Mary Oliver (1935-2019), who, at the time of her death, was reckoned to be the bestselling poet in the United States. Oliver’s poetry is in the Romantic tradition and often takes its cue from observations of the natural world; ‘The Black Snake’ is a classic example of this.
You can read Oliver’s ‘The Black Snake’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of the poem below. The poem takes around one minute to read.
‘The Black Snake’: summary
The poem comprises six stanzas, each of four lines (also known as quatrains). The first stanza describes how a black snake moved quickly onto a road one morning, and a truck driver noticed it too late to swerve, and ended up running it over, killing it. This is how death happens, Oliver’s speaker tells us: suddenly and surprisingly.
In death, the snake lies in a loop, unmoving. It looks like an old bicycle tyre because it is black and forms a circular shape. The speaker of the poems tells us she stopped her car and carried the dead snake out of the road and into the bushes. This allows her to get a closer look at the dead creature, which is cool to the touch, its scaly skin glistening. Now another simile comes to mind: a leather whip whose patterning or braiding resembles the skin pattern of the snake.
The speaker is also put in mind of a dead brother who remains beautiful and calmly serene in death (perhaps because the brother will never grow older and will thus remain young and beautiful). She leaves the dead snake under the leaves by the side of the road and drives on, but now she is thinking about death, and specifically, how sudden and momentous it is, and how certain.
Death will, after all, come to all living things, including ourselves, one day. But although our rational minds know this fact deep down, we live as though we are somehow unaware of it, or as if we believe nature will make an exception for us.
This ‘fire’ or spirit burns brightly in us, and it’s the way we prefer to live, deep down. (After all, if we lived every moment of every day in full knowledge of the death that awaits us all, might that awareness not crush our spirit and convince us that everything is ultimately pointless? We have to hide this fact from ourselves, Mary Oliver appears to say.)
So instead, we tell ourselves that our lives will be one long and unending succession of fortunate events, and ‘oblivion’, or utter destruction, will not come to us, personally. This is the ‘light’ in every cell of every living thing: it’s what makes living possible. And this same impulse is what drove the snake to move ‘forward’ until, one spring morning, it moved through the leaves and into the road, where – unbeknown to the snake itself – death awaited it.
‘The Black Snake’: analysis
As Allan Burns observes in his Thematic Guide to American Poetry, ‘The Black Snake’ is a poem about the ‘deadly intersection of the natural world and civilization.’ Burns compares Oliver’s poem to Richard Wilbur’s ‘The Death of a Toad’ (1948), which is also about a wild creature ‘inadvertently destroyed’ by a human mechanism.
If the quintessential Mary Oliver poem is about the power of the natural world to inspire and improve the human condition, ‘The Black Snake’ is about the power of the man-made world to destroy or endanger the world of nature.
Of course, this is not the same as saying that ‘The Black Snake’ is an ecological poem. Instead, its theme is death and the universality of death. In this respect, the poem emerges as much more typical of Mary Oliver’s output than it might first appear to be: experiencing the death of the black snake and seeing – and holding up close – its lifeless body inspires the poem’s speaker to reflect on her own mortality, and the mortality of all living things, human and non-human.
And in this connection, the similes Oliver uses to describe the dead body of the snake are all of them suggestive, but in different ways. The first comparison she makes is with an old bicycle tyre, as if unconsciously picking up the tyre-image from the wheels of the truck which had been the cause of the snake’s doom. The second is to a braided whip, which is doubly apt: first because it provides an immediately perceptible visual image to the reader, and second because what else is leather but the skin of a dead animal (such as a snake)?
But for her third simile, the speaker turns from the inanimate (the bicycle tyre) and the once-animate (the leather whip) to the once-human: the comparison with a dead brother, which is designed to bring us up short in the sudden departure from visual similarity (tyres, whips) into the realm of the human, and the world of human grieving, such as one feels for a dead sibling.
‘Brother’ is significant, too: not ‘dead father’ or ‘dead mother’, but a sibling of the same generation. We accept that our parents will likely predecease us and this is the way nature intends it to be, but a dead sibling does not even provide the safety net of a generational gap: it brings death almost too close for comfort, too close (almost literally) to home.
And this, in the last analysis, is what ‘The Black Snake’ ends up being about: the snake was merely the poem’s starting point and the detail Mary Oliver loops back to (appropriately coiled, like the dead snake itself), but the poem’s meaning lies in its meditation on the inevitability of death.
And in the snake’s behaviour, Oliver’s speaker appears to detect a positive approach to living. The snake was not thinking of the oblivion that awaits it as it made its way through the leaves and out into the road. Indeed, it has no concept of its own mortality. Although humans are unique among nature in possessing this (questionable?) knowledge, we nevertheless live as though it won’t happen to us.
And whilst the snake’s overconfidence in its own invincibility is what led to its death, Oliver’s speaker views this as the preferred way for all living things to conduct their lives – humans included. The alternative is to live with the certainty of death constantly stifling and immobilising us, never truly living because we are in constant fear of the death we know is coming, one day, for us.