“Snake” can be understood on two levels, as narrative and as symbol. On the simpler level, a Lawrence-like speaker encounters a snake at “his” water trough. Rapt by nearly hypnotic fascination, he allows the snake to drink, without taking action. Soliloquizing like Hamlet, the speaker wonders whether he is a coward not to kill the snake, because in Sicily the gold snakes are venomous. The snake continues to drink until, satisfied, it climbs the broken bank of the wall face, puts its head into “that dreadful hole,” and withdraws “going into blackness.” At this point, the speaker throws a log at the water trough yet fails to hit the snake. Immediately, he regrets his “pettiness” and wishes that the snake would come back, for it seemed to be like a king. The speaker has missed his chance with “one of the lords of life.”
On the narrative level, the poem is perplexing because a reader cannot fathom why the speaker expresses his internal debate with such vehemence over the question of killing the snake. One is not necessarily a “coward” in avoiding a poisonous snake, nor is one “perverse” in longing to talk to one. What “voices” of his education demand that he kill the snake? Are they the voices of Judaic-Christian tradition concerning the serpent in the Garden of Eden? Are they the voices of scientific rationalism that define a venomous snake as dangerous? Moreover, why should the speaker feel such regret at the act of throwing a log at the snake? After all, the snake had escaped the blow. Why should the snake seem to the speaker to be “like a king in exile, uncrowned in the underworld”? To be sure, in non-Western cultures the snake (or, in ancient Egypt, the crocodile) is often worshiped as a divine symbol of fertility. In India and in Mexico among the ancient Aztecs, the snake has been revered as a god of sexuality and life. Yet why should a twentieth century European speaker suppose that the snake is “due to be crowned again” as a lord of life?
Answers to these questions can best be determined by analyzing the symbolic structure of the poem. The snake is clearly a phallic image—at least to the speaker. When the snake first emerges, reaching down from “a fissure in the earth-wall,” the speaker perceives, on a subconscious level, the male organ emerging from the female. Lawrence uses the vulva image of “fissure” or “earth-lipped fissure” deliberately. When the speaker, almost trancelike, stares at the snake “withdrawing into that horrid black hole,” he imagines on a symbolic level the act of sexual intercourse. As a result of his “education,” he has repressed his sexuality; his fears of the woman are expressed by the word “horrid.” By throwing a phallic-shaped log at the disappearing snake, he has suddenly snapped the tension. Now he regrets the voices of his “accursed human education.” Even as the Ancient Mariner in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem suffered guilt after slaying the albatross, so the speaker feels guilt at his “mean” act. For the snake, in Lawrence’s symbolism, is indeed a lord of life. Like Pluto, who in Greek mythology ruled the underworld, the sexual force (phallus) rules the subconscious and is “due to be crowned again,” this time as king of the dark gods of the blood—of vitality. Because the snake inhabits two worlds—that of light and of darkness, of the consciousness and of the subconsciousness—it represents to Lawrence (as do “Bavarian Gentians”) a union or wedding of the opposing elements of the universe into a single symbol of the life force.