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Snake -- D H Lawrence

Guest poem sent in by singh_abs2000
(Poem #1282) Snake
 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
 Of life.
 And I have something to expiate:
 A pettiness.
-- D H Lawrence
          (From: Birds, Beasts and Flowers)

This is one of those poems that leaves its impressions deep in ones mind (I
am still haunted by that silent shimering serene snake)...the fact that it
also happens to be written by D. H.  Lawrence who voies some fundamental
issues that I deeply feel about makes this poem doubly precious!

The most striking aspect of this poem is the sense of tight conflict that it
evokes. Man vs. (his own?) nature, mystery vs. conformity, cool waters vs.
afternoon heat, Satan vs. Adam. The biblical connotations are pretty
obvious, and in his typical iconoclastic way Lawrence flouts the heavens by
finally acknowledging this alternative Lord of life.

Those who have read and are familiar with Lawrence's work would be able to
see the oft repeated motif of sexual and mystic repression forced by society
and its instinctual (re)awakening.  Needless to say the poem abounds with
freudian symbols; the snake, the trough, the hole in the earth...In fact the
poem is so cogent that when studying it we spent hours on each line!

Despite all the literary paraphernalia that often goes with Lawrence there
is something deeply human about his work. At some level we have all
experienced the sense of confusion, intrigue, awe, lust, anger, guilt (The
albatross is a reference to the "Rime of the Mariner" by Coleridge where a
sailor brings misfortune upon his ship by shooting the bird), shame and
ultimately sadness and wistfulness (...come back, my snake) that overcomes
us whenever we come face to face with our 'deeper' darker beings (what after
all are the origins of the original sin?)...

Well! Who else but Lawrence for the closing statement:

"If there is a serpent of secret and shameful desire in my soul, let me not
beat it out of my consciousness with sticks. It will lie beyond, in the
marsh of the so-called subconsciousness, where I cannot follow it with my
sticks. Let me bring it to the fire to see what it is. For a serpent is a
thing created. It has its own raison d'etre. In its own being it has beauty
and reality. Even my horror is a tribute to its reality. And I must admit
the genuineness of my horror, accept it, and not exclude it from my
understanding. . . .  There is a natural marsh in my belly, and there the
snake is naturally at home. Shall he not crawl into my consciousness? Shall
I kill him with sticks the moment he lifts his flattened head on my sight?
Shall I kill him or pluck out the eye which sees him? None the less, he will
swarm within the marsh. Then let the serpent of living corruption take his
place among us honourably. . . . For the Lord is the lord of all things, not
of some only. And everything shall in its proportion drink its own draught
of life."

(p. 235 DHL: Life into Art by Keith Sagar/University of Georgia Press,
Athens, 1985)

There are plenty of online discussions of this classic poem. One of
my favorites is:

90 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

David Pietersen said...

I learnt this poem off by heart at Primary School back in the very early
60's and now my son at 10 is learning it

D Pietersen


Cape Town

(age 56)

Jennifer said...

I also learnt it in primary school in the late 60s. In my bookclub we were asked to choose a poem to read and this is the first one that came to mind - all these years later

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Anonymous said...

on the contrary, i read this poem at the age of 40. But, i still read it and discuss about it with like-minded people.

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