The Black Snake Summary
“The Black Snake” is a 1979 poem by Mary Oliver about the death of a snake, an event which prompts the speaker to think about death more broadly.
- When a black snake slithers onto a road, it is run over by a truck and killed.
- The speaker stops her car, carries the dead snake from the road, and lays him in some nearby bushes.
- As she drives on, the speaker reasons that death is sudden and inevitable. But she also considers how below reason runs a vital current of instinct that drives all living beings, including the snake.
Last Updated on May 12, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 613
“The Black Snake” is a poem by Mary Oliver that was first published in 1979. Oliver’s poetry often focuses on the natural world and the intersections between man and nature. This theme is at work in “The Black Snake,” one of Oliver’s most anthologized poems, which grapples with the suddenness and inevitability of death, an event the speaker witnesses when a snake slithers onto a road and into the path of a truck. The incident prompts the speaker to consider the precariousness of life and the gift of being alive.
The opening stanza of the poem introduces the eponymous black snake as a “flash” on the road on which the poem’s speaker is driving. Unable to swerve in time, a truck runs it over, killing it: “death, that is how it happens.” The events and images in this stanza occur quickly: the flash of the snake as it slithers onto the road, the inability of the truck to swerve in time, and the death that results.
The second stanza describes the snake, which now lies dead on the road, as being “looped and useless / as an old bicycle tire.” The speaker, who appears to have been driving behind the truck, stops the car, gets out, and carries the snake into the bushes at the side of the road. The speaker dubs the snake a “he,” thus transforming it from an object with an “it” pronoun to a living being with a male pronoun. The speaker uses the first-person pronoun in this stanza for the first time, establishing the perspective of the poem.
In the third stanza, the speaker gives a detailed description of the snake as she lays him on the ground. She calls the snake “cool and gleaming / as a braided whip” and compares him to a “dead brother” who is “beautiful and quiet.” This appears to be a generalized comparison rather than a reference to a specific brother, intended to suggest the speaker’s feelings of kinship with the deceased snake. In the last line of the stanza, she deposits the snake “under the leaves.”
The fourth stanza depicts the speaker as she returns to her car and continues on her way. As she does so, she meditates on death, considering “its suddenness, / its terrible weight, / its certain coming.” It becomes apparent that the snake’s particular death represents an occasion to think about death more broadly, including the speaker’s own inevitable death. The stanza’s last line ends with the phrase “Yet under,” introducing a rhetorical turn.
In the fifth stanza, the poem’s speaker contemplates the world of “reason” in juxtaposition with a lower world where a “brighter fire” burns. “The bones,” which represent the realm of instinct and intuition, “prefer” this place of fire, for it is a place of life, a story of “endless good fortune.” In other words, this force which the speaker describes represents a vitality that does not heed or acknowledge the certainty of death. Unlike the layer of reason expressed in the fourth stanza, this layer of instinct faces the prospect of oblivion and says, “not me!”
The final stanza further describes the life force that pulses within all living things. The speaker describes it as “the light at the center of every cell.” The poem then returns to the initial scene, noting that it was this life force that sent the black snake “coiling and flowing forward” as he moved “happily” among “the green leaves” and bushes before meeting his fatal end on the road. The final line, “he came to the road,” ends the poem precisely at the moment when the snake’s life also ends.
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