What is the theme of the poem “Snake” by D. H. Lawrence?

In “Snake,” D. H. Lawrence explores the relationship between nature and humans and suggests that humans should respect and honor nature. He also highlights the contrast between the simple purity of nature and the complex emotions of human consciousness.

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In his poem “Snake,” D. H. Lawrence explores many Romantic themes, like the contrast between the natural world and the human world. The speaker has been taught that in a situation like this, the snake must be killed. He thinks to himself, “If you were a man /...

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In his poem “Snake,” D. H. Lawrence explores many Romantic themes, like the contrast between the natural world and the human world. The speaker has been taught that in a situation like this, the snake must be killed. He thinks to himself, “If you were a man / You would take a stick and break him now, and finish him off.” But despite what he knows, he cannot bring himself to do this to the snake: it does not feel right to him. He observes the snake closely and realizes that he likes it and that he feels “honoured” that the snake has even come near him. This perspective on the snake suggests that nature is something that humans should respect and appreciate for its purity.

Although the speaker is reluctant to kill the snake, he is genuinely afraid of it. Lawrence is thus also exploring human emotions and how one can be afraid of something but also drawn to know more about it and protect it. In the end, the speaker throws a log at the snake, and it goes away. Even though he did not kill it, the speaker still feels bad and about this and thinks that it was a petty act. This ending reinforces the idea that we should live in harmony with nature and respect nature, not hurt it or distance ourselves from it.

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When he is in Sicily, near Mt. Etna, the speaker goes to a water trough to fill his water jug. There, he is startled to see a snake. He debates whether or not to kill it, as it is a poisonous snake, and he debates whether his refusal to kill it is an appreciation of its beauty—he writes, "How glad I was he had come like a guest in quiet, to drink at my water-trough"—or merely cowardice. Finally, he throws a log at the snake, causing it, although it is already leaving, to wriggle off in awkward haste. The speaker then feels ashamed at having done that, calling it a "petty" act.

The theme or message Lawrence is trying to convey is that the snake is a beautiful creature, one to be honored, not killed, for it is more in harmony with nature and more truly itself than an over-educated human being.

Lawrence uses positive language to describe the snake in a way that humanizes it. The alliteration of the repeated "s" sounds also conveys some of the feeling of a snake:

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

When he throws the log at the snake, the speaker feels shame and a sense that his superior education is actually a curse:

I despised myself and the voices of my accursed human education.

Lawrence evokes Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner when he alludes to the albatross the mariner thoughtlessly killed. Lawrence here communicates that he understands the snake as a blessed creature of God, to be honored and cared for:

And I thought of the albatross
And I wished he would come back, my snake.

He decides that attacking the snake, even if half heartedly, is an unworthy act, for a snake should be respected:

I have something to expiate:
A pettiness.

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There are two main themes in the poem: the relationship of people to nature and the narrator's own sense of identity.  

The narrator offers us two possible ways we can relate to the natural world. The first way is to admire the beauty and grace of the snake. Even though the snake has the potential to be dangerous, we are actually in no danger from it if we simply stand by and observe while it drinks, appreciating its grace and wildness. The second way to relate to nature is through fear and anger, destroying even the possibility of any form of competition or danger to humanity. 

The narrator initially takes the first stance:

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.

Temporarily, his "accursed human education" and sense of his masculine identity get the better of him, and he hurls a log at the snake. He immediately feels remorse and realizes that the act was petty and in fact morally wrong. 

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In the poem "Snake," Lawrence utilizes a theme of nature and contrasts the world of nature and creatures such as the snake with the human world of man. He contrasts the basic nature of the snake to simply "be," acting only with instincts to the actions of man that are so conflicted by conscious thought and emotion.

In both his physical descriptions of the snake and his actions as well as the conflicting emotions both revering and disgusted by the snake throughout the poem, Lawrence continues to contrast the simple wonder of nature with the complicated condition of being human.

Along with the differences the poem refers to between nature and humanity, the poem also brings the two together. The images Lawrence paints with words depict the dichotomy of the condition of being human wherein we can identify with the simple, instinctive life of the snake, even longing for that simplicity at times while acknowledging the human condition that confines us.

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