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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 “someone” and describing him as musing. This imagery, which suggests an ascending hierarchy, anticipates the symbolic leaps later in the poem, when the poet compares the snake to a god, a king, and, finally, “one of the lords/ Of life.”

The sixth verse paragraph introduces the poet’s inner conflict, arising from his voice of education that instructs him to kill the “venomous” snake. The five ensuing ones trace the poet’s intensifying crisis as voices challenge his manhood and courage as well as his instinctive admiration for the animal, which he feels has honored him by seeking his hospitality at the trough. He includes the reader in his dialectical self-scrutiny:

Was it cowardice, that I dared not kill him?Was it perversity, that I longed to talk to him?Was it humility, to feel so honoured?

In verse paragraphs 12 through 14, the conflict is transposed outside the poet, when the speaker hurls a log in protest at the withdrawing snake. The concluding stanzas record the poet’s fascination, regret, guilt, admiration, and pettiness, respectively. Lawrence’s invocation of the albatross from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” underscores the poet’s sense of sin and need for atonement. His use of the possessive “my” to refer to the otherworldly snake suggests that a profound transformation has occurred. Though banishing the creature by his “mean act,” he claims it as his own. The implication is that were the snake to return, the poet would submit to its presence, its coming and going alike.

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...

(The entire section is 980 words.)