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Snake by D.H. Lawrence
by D.H. Lawrence was written in the early 1920s. It is a narrative poem that uses imagery and symbolism to convey Lawrence's idea's about society throughout history. One can see many parallels between social class and
This poem also highly relfects religious ideas. Although it is not clearly stated, Lawrence has subtle hints in his poem. Many of the symbols used are religious symbols by nature.
A snake came to my water-trough
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
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,
i o 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
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:
is an interesting poem. Lawrence paints a vivid picture of the snake at the trough, yet it seems as if it is a metaphor. Lawrence seems to be mocking society through his use of the snake. The snake represents the upper
class while he, D.H. Lawrence, is just a middle class worker. In Stanza's 1 and 2, Lawrence begins by describing that the snake arrived at the trough first and that he therefore must await his turn. There is no hint that the man fears the snake, but instead there seems to be a respect that provides the man with the patience to wait his turn. As the poem continues, Lawrence paints a picture of the snake. In stanze 5 he states that the snake came from "the burning bowls of the earth." This could be an allusion to hell or even a reflection by man that he does not actually respect the social rankings and only does so for lack of choice. In stanza's 6 and 7 he struggles with his conscience and the idea of killing the snake. This could parallel to social rankings because the under classes may always be thinking of a way to "kill" the upper class; revolts, wars, uprisings etc. Since the man does not kill the snake, we see that he has succumbs to the social conventions and is in fact going to wait his turn as any peasant would in society.
When Lawrence says "
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" it parallels to society. The rich people, being the snake, would drink from the trough first feeling no remorse for the middle class man waiting in their presence. The middle class person, feeling as if he should shew the rich person from their trough, instead feels honored to have such nobility around, and as Lawrence later states, is actually afraid to fight back. D.H. Lawrence is combating social structure through the symbolic use of a snake. Eventually the man acknowledges that is is indeed fear of the snake, not respect, that has him waiting. He hurls a log at the snake. The snake, shocked and angry, leaves the trough; but we end up feeling remorse for the snake. Having done nothing wrong, the snake seems like a kind animal, when in reality we know it is not. This could reflect society because people were aware that the upper classes were sneaky like snakes but instead chose to believe that they did not fear them but instead respected them. The man regrets throwing the log as he feels like he has missed out on a memory with a majestic creature.
Most people would not think of a snakes as a majestic creature, but D.H. Lawrence makes it clear in this poem that he does. Many people would take a snake to symbolize sin and evil as seen in the Bible and the Garden of Eden, but actually Lawrence is using it in a majestic and noble light. Perhaps this is the case because he is paralleling society and the nobility can be sneaky and sinful yet still seem majestic, just like the snake.
"And I have some to expiate, a pettiness" is the last and most powerful line of the poem. Expiate is such a strong word meaning repent or atone. The man wants to atone for his sin. He regrets throwing the log at the snake as he realized that the snake was not going to harm him. He wants to repent his pettiness and atone for the sin he has committed.
The use of the word expiate and the talk of atoning for sins leads one to understand that religion is indeed a theme in this poem. The use of the snake as a symbol and the battle between good and evil in this poem are all reasons that religion can be seen as an undertone. The battle of good vs. evil is ongoing in the Bible and can be seen here in this poem, if not only just in the symbol of the snake itself but also in the interaction between the snake and the man being that the man believes he is good vs. the snake whom he believes to be evil.
Possible themes: social class, religion
Back to the D. H. Lawrence Page.
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