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Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In “Snake,” as in many of the poems in the collection Birds, Beasts, and Flowers (1923), Lawrence explores the otherness of the creature world, defined chiefly by its purity and innocence in contrast to the corrupt human world. The poem is a subtle celebration of nature in the Wordsworthian tradition of nature poetry, wherein the ordinary becomes an occasion for celebration and revelation.

Lawrence’s intense contemplation reveals what he shares with the snake (that creature state within himself) and what divides him from it—human consciousness. His imagery reflects the distinction he often makes between two modes of consciousness, that of intuition or instinct (the blood self) represented by the snake and that of intellect (the nerve/brain self) evident in humans. As he asserts in “Fantasia of the Unconscious” (1922), the snake’s consciousness “is only dynamic, and non-cerebral,” while a person is composed of warring elements of instinct and willful intellect. In the poem, this conflict is dramatized first in the poet’s instinctive attraction to the snake and the educated voice which tells him to destroy it, and again in his banishment of the snake and subsequent longing for its return.

The liabilities of human education is a recurring theme in Lawrence’s work. In “Fantasia of the Unconscious,” he argues that established ideas that do not square with a human being’s “dynamic nature” arrest his individuality and damage his psyche. Clearly, in “Snake,” the ideas fostered by education outside the poet impede his submission to the creature he admires.

Rather than deny instinct, Lawrence would strive for an acceptance of duality and polarity in the world as well as in himself. In “Snake,” polarity and struggle are reflected in the contrasting juxtaposed imagery, the flux of conflicting feelings, and the ordinary diction with its mythic overtones. They find balance or resolution in the closing epiphany, in which Lawrence realizes...

(The entire section is 482 words.)