The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Snake” is a seventy-four-line free-verse poem divided into nineteen verse paragraphs (stanzas of unequal length). Like many modern lyrics, it incorporates a narrative element, recording the poet’s encounter with a snake at his water-trough. Through this structure and carefully mobilized imagery, the poet reveals his conflicted, deepening consciousness, which moves from casual description to epiphanic confession. Written when D. H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda were living in Taormina, Sicily, in 1920-1921, the poem is derived from Lawrence’s actual experience there. Its imagery and themes, however, are anticipated in the second section of his 1917 essay “The Reality of Peace.”

The setting is a hot July day upon which the poet takes his pitcher to the water-trough, where a snake is drinking. The first five verse paragraphs establish the scene and provide the occasion for the poet’s initial, sensual description of the snake. Domestic and exotic images are combined as the pajama-clad poet observes the snake “In the deep, strange-scented shade of the great dark carob-tree.” Light and dark are contrasted in the snake’s golden color and the surrounding gloom. The poet conjures the creature’s snakiness with emphasis on his “straight mouth,” “slack long body,” and flickering, “two-forked tongue.” He also compares the snake to domesticated farm animals (“drinking cattle”) and to a human by referring to the snake as...

(The entire section is 480 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

The free-verse form of “Snake,” a form Lawrence champions in his essay “Poetry of the Present” (1918), facilitates his drive for knowledge through meditation and emotional perception. The long, unrhymed lines are written in straightforward, colloquial diction, inviting the reader to participate in the poet’s experience. Divided into verse paragraphs, they approximate the quality of prose and, like the essays Lawrence was writing at about the same time, track a process of argument and self-discovery.

The lines conform at once to the physical and emotional experience of the poem, to the object of the long, slithering snake, and to the poet’s fluid mind, which travels over experience, comprehending itself in the light of what it finds. Many free-verse conventions derived from Walt Whitman’s poetry appear in Lawrence’s poem: organic rhythm, parallel structure, and repetition. Yet the tone of the poem is personal in a way Whitman’s poems are often not, and Lawrence deploys imagery more in the vein of the imagists and the English Romantic poets.

In focusing on the snake, Lawrence recalls past literary texts, from Genesis to John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667, 1674), but Lawrence uses traditional imagery for his own ends. The serpent of eternity, the phallic god, the snake, usually a figure of evil, is a positive force here, while the poet has “something to expiate.” Images of light and dark, often associated with...

(The entire section is 500 words.)