The Black Snake

by Mary Oliver

Start Free Trial

Analyze "The Black Snake" by Mary Oliver.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In "The Black Snake," the speaker has just hit a snake with her car. The poem that follows is a reflection on mortality and a range of reactions to death.

The first stanza describes the speaker's hitting the snake as it "flashed" in front of her car. She doesn't have time to avoid it, and the incident becomes symbolic of "how [death] happens." This first quick stanza introduces the idea of how abruptly death can occur and suggests that the line between life and death is very thin. Next, the speaker reflects on what the dead snake looks like. He has become "useless" in his death, like "an old bicycle tire." The simile implies that the snake has quickly transformed from a living being to an inanimate object. Perhaps as an act of atonement and respect, the speaker brings the snake to the bushes.

Once the speaker touches the snake, she includes more emotional imagery and figurative language, referring to the snake as "a dead brother" in its beauty and silence. Rather than a discarded tire, the snake is now "gleaming / as a braided whip," a more flattering and evocative image. The speaker appreciates the aesthetic detail of the snake's skin

At the end, the speaker mediates on life and death, primarily on the way the living react to death. Again the speaker italicizes "death" to point to its profound significance, its finality. She thinks about death's "suddenness," citing the way the snake just appeared in front of the car, giving her no time to avoid it. She thinks about death's "certain coming," its inevitability. Paradoxically, even though people know they will die one day, they feel relieved at not being the one dead in this instant. (See also the end of Robert Frost's famous poem "Out, Out—"). The speaker says there is a feeling "under reason," something more instinctual, represented by the metaphorical "brighter fire." The death of another makes the speaker and the living feel they are recipients "of endless good fortune" because it was "not me!" The exclamation reflects the euphoria and relief of the person who has survived amid the presence of death.

The speaker concludes the poem by reflecting, again paradoxically, that this very impulse is the one that led the snake to propel itself into the world and under the speaker's car. The moment before the snake's death is described as careless and happy. He was just "coiling and flowing... through the green leaves," and then abruptly he was killed when he reached the road. This final stanza suggests that the same could be true of any of us who, momentarily feeling alive and grateful, could the next moment be as dead as the snake itself.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

“The Black Snake” by Mary Oliver serves as a reminder of the fragility of life and the certainty of death.  Death is a common topic for the poet who examines  its occurrence, its meaning, and its mystery.   The poem places a reptile that most people find unsympathetic in the position of representing the natural order in nature.


The point of view of the poem is first person. The narrator, who is probably the poet, describes the scene and draws the reader into the mysterious world of the snake and its death.


The poem is written in free verse.  There are six quatrains with no rhyme scheme. The poet uses enjambment to continue the thoughts from one line to the next. 


The poem reflects the sadness of the poet as she observes the death of the snake. Also, there is a remorseful atmosphere for an unnecessary death caused by man. Later, the mood becomes brighter as the poet thinks of how she has eluded death.


Human beings versus nature

The poet explores the connections between creatures of the natural world and mankind. The truck unable to swerve accidentally kills the snake.  The driver does not stop and seems unconcerned about the loss of this part of nature.

The most important theme lies in the examination of death as a part of the cycle of life.  When the poet looks at the snake and feels his still warm body, she thinks of its beauty and the swiftness of its death.

I leave him under the leaves

and drive on, thinking

about death: its suddenness,

its terrible weight,

its certain coming.


  • Now he [the dead snake] lies looped and useless as an old bicycle tire.  
  • He is as cool and gleaming as a braided whip
  • He is as beautiful and quiet as a dead brother


 Death a dreaded weight

The suddenness of the snake’s death represents the fragility of life and the certainty of death


The snake moving through the leaves and greenery in the spring symbolizes the renewal of life. Just as the snake glides onto the road, mankind also glides into rhythms of life without reflection on inherent dangers. "Life," not death, "is the light at the center of every cell."


A truck runs over a snake.  The poet is in her car behind the truck. She stops and carries the dead snake to the side of the road and places him under some leaves.

Traveling on she thinks about death and its quickness in taking its victims.Thinking about death logically, she happily believes that with her good fortune it will not capture her. However, death is at the center of everything that lives.  It ended the life of the snake which had been slithering through springtime  and life happily until it crossed the road.


Man invades the habitat of all the animals, insects, reptiles and creatures of the natural world. He builds roads and drives man-made vehicles. The meetings of man and creature often result in death. The natural order of the world is that the fittest survive.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial Team