What is the thought process of D.H. Lawrence in the poem "The Snake"?

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carol-davis | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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The poem, "The Snake," by D.H. Lawrence  is a recollection of an event in the poet’s life.

Initially, the poet is rather annoyed that he has to wait in line as the snake drinks from the trough.  The trough belongs to the man, not the snake.  It is infringing on the man’s territory.  The poem told in first person with the poet as the narrator gives not only a beautiful description of the lovely tree which leans over the trough, but ironically the snake itself.  The snake, yellow and brown with a soft underbelly, lies flat:

He sipped with his straight mouth,
Softly drank through his straight gums, into his slack long body,

The poet feels like he is waiting in line for a drink at the water fountain.

It looks at the man as it issues forth his forked tongue.

  Reptiles smell using the tip of their tongue, and a forked tongue allows them to sense from which direction a smell is coming.

Living in Sicily beneath Mt. Etna, the speaker knows that black snakes are non-poisonous but golden snakes are lethal.  He decides the snake must be killed.

However, it seems as though the snake has entranced the man instead of vice versa.  Something has changed.  Now, the speaker finds the snake like a guest, glad that he has chosen his trough to refresh in.  If he were a man, he would kill the snake.  However, the snake is harming no one, peacefully and passively drinking from the trough.

Was it humility, to feel so honoured?
I felt so honoured.

Looking back at the snake, the man watches entranced, yet afraid of the snake.  As though he dreams this scene, the snake flickers his tongue, god-like, it looks around, and slowly retreats back into a hole in a walled bank of earth.

Suddenly, perversion takes over, and the poet picks up a log and throws it in the direction of the snake. Quickly,  the snake withdraws inside the hole.  The man feels immediate remorse and shame over his uncouth action.

The poet makes a literary reference to a poem by Samuel Coleridge about an albatross that metaphorically appeared as a curse.

An albatross is a large sea-bird, which in Coleridge's poem was tied around the neck of a sailor who had killed the one. The other seamen, counting that act as a bad omen, await the mariner's plight. However the situation is reversed and the entire crew perishes except the mariner who has the bird around his neck. The poet's self-deprecation because of the attempt to harm the snake does not bode well for the man. He wishes the snake would return and claims the snake as his own.  Feeling he missed his chance to live peacefully with the reptile, the poet counts the experience on his part as something for which he needs to compensate: a spiteful stupid act.

A moment in poetic time that D.H. Lawrence shares with his readers. In this poem, the snake charms the man.


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