1] Lawrence drew this poem from a meeting with a snake at his watering trough in 1920-21 when he lived at Fontana Vecchia in Taormina, a town in Sicily on Mount Tauro, overlooking the Bay of Naxos and in sight of Mount Etna. From March 15, 1919, to early June 1923, the central and north-east craters of Etna were active (see www.geo.mtu.edu/~boris/ETNA_elenco.html by Boris Behncke, Dipartimento di Scienze Geologiche [Sezione di Geologia e Geofisica], Palazzo delle Scienze, Corso Italia 55, 95129 Catania, Italy). The BBC speculates:
So which snake did he see that July noon at his water trough? We know it was golden brown and considered poisonous so perhaps it was the asp viper (vipera aspis). This is a mountain-dwelling snake of Central Europe that lives in the same territory for its whole life, inhabiting dry stony slopes or open mountain meadows. It hibernates in rocky crevices, caves or underground caverns and emerges in the spring to mate. The young eat lizards and insects but adults mainly hunt small rodents or shrews. The asp viper is diurnal and is active all day in spring and autumn, but spends the hottest periods of summer shaded beneath a stone. This fits in with Lawrence's description of the snake disappearing back into the ground. The subspecies found in Sicily (Vipera aspis hugyi) is usually a reddish colour, with distinctive red-orange saddles down its back. The venom of the asp viper is potent and could kill you if you tried to handle it so it might well have earned a reputation for being dangerous.
Lawrence also mentions a harmless black snake. This is probably the western whip snake (coluber viridiflavus viridiflavus) because the subspecies found in Sicily is a shiny black colour. This snake has a varied diet, taking not only the usual mammals, birds and lizards, but also snakes, frogs, tadpoles, beetles, slugs and snails. It is found in low-lying country in dry areas with a few shrubs. It can be quite aggressive and will hiss loudly at a perceived threat and sometimes attack it. It is diurnal and at night takes cover under stones or in the burrows of small mammals.
("Which Snake is Snake?", www.bbc.co.uk/nature/poetry/which_snake.shtml). See also Kenneth R. G. Welch, Snakes of the world: a checklist, 2 vols. (Taunton, Somerset: R & A Research and Information Ltd., 1994 (QL 666 O6 W45 1994 Gerstein).
4] carob-tree: red-flowered evergreen common to the Mediterranean.
21] Etna: volvanic mountain in Sicily, Europe's highest.
66] albatross: the bird that a sailor in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" long repented killing.
72] Lawrence likely refers to George Meredith's Modern Love (1862), XXX:
What are we first? First, animals; and nextCf. also Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Experience," 1-3: "The lords of life, the lords of life, / I saw them pass / In their own guise." Diane Wakoski's "The Girls" (1988) responds to Lawrence's poem.
Intelligences at a leap; on whom
Pale lies the distant shadow of the tomb,
And all that draweth on the tomb for text.
Into which state comes Love, the crowning sun:
Beneath whose light the shadow loses form.
We are the lords of life, and life is warm.
Intelligence and instinct now are one.
But nature says: "My children most they seem
When they least know me: therefore I decree
That they shall suffer." Swift doth young Love flee,
And we stand wakened, shivering from our dream.
Then if we study Nature we are wise.
Thus do the few who live but with the day:
The scientific animals are they. --
Lady, this is my sonnet to your eyes.
Commentary by Ian Lancashire
D. H. Lawrence would write The Plumed Serpent (about Quetzalcoatl) in Mexico perhaps about five years after his experience with the golden-brown asp viper that he recorded in "Snake," a poem written in Taormina, Sicily, in 1920-21. "Snake" memorably brings together the myths of death and life that western people associate with the commonest of reptiles. Lawrence's "accursed human education" (65) teaches him to abhor and kill snakes, and he felt "afraid" (37) at meeting the viper because he knew "in Sicily the black, black snakes are innocent, the gold are venomous" (24). H. F. G., in his article "Snakes" in the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1910-11), explains that snakes have "become one of the greatest scourges to mankind" (XXV, 287) and then goes on to describe snake poison and its antitoxins. The instinctive revulsion experienced by many in coming upon a snake, even today, arises from such education and from accounts of actual snake-bites by victims. Yet Lawrence also expresses gladness (28) at witnessing this "yellow-brown," "earth-brown, earth-golden" visitor at his own water-trough. He confesses "how I liked him" (27), and how he "felt so honoured" (34) to find the snake -- whom he eventually called "my snake" (67), one of "lords / Of life" (71-72) -- ahead of him to drink. "The Lords of Life are the Masters of Death," Lawrence says in The Plumed Serpent.
Beginning with the opening verse paragraphs, Lawrence describes this snake as his equal. Both are individuals. He, the "I" of the poem, met "A snake" (not the universal species, "the" snake, but a particular creature), which came to, he says, "my" water-trough, just as Lawrence himself did. Both of them came "To drink there" (3). The syntax of the third line refers back to Lawrence the narrator first, and then to the snake. That Lawrence is dressed "in pyjamas for the heat" and comes to a "water-trough" puts him at the social level of all those drinking from troughs, including animals such as (he later stresses) "cattle" (16-17). Lawrence "came down the steps" just as the snake "reached down from a fissure in the earth-wall" (5, 7). Both descended from a higher place, one more suiting their rank in the world. The word "reached" hints that the snake behaved like a hand, as Lawrence's own did, holding the pitcher. Just as Lawrence stood in "the deep, strange-scented shade of the great dark carob-tree," this snake emerged from "the gloom" (4, 7). Both of them are males, and "he was at the trough before me." For that reason, Lawrence "must stand and wait" (6). He uses the word "must" twice, almost in disbelief or indignation, but a civilized Brit always respects a queue and never butts in ahead of the last one in line. Because "Someone was before me at my water-trough," Lawrence stood "waiting" (14-15).
Someone familiar with classical English poetry may hear, in this, an echo of Milton's sonnet about his blindness, "When I consider how my light is spent." It closes with the words of Patience:
God doth not needMilton alludes to the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30), in which Jesus likens the kingdom of heaven to a man who, like God, gives talents to his servants and expects them to use them and make them grow. Those who do so are rewarded, but the "unprofitable" servant who "was afraid" and buried his one talent in the earth had no profit and was cast "into outer darkeness, there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (that is, into hell). Milton wrote his sonnet to defend himself from the charge of being a bad servant, his sight in darkness, his talent unusable. Later Lawrence refers to the albatross in Samuel T. Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" (66), but is this early allusion, not so far detected by any reader (to my knowledge), a trick of Lawrence's or my own reader's memory, an accident? Why would a sighted apostle of liberated sexuality, Lawrence, echo a blind militant Christian in a poem about as far as from the God of Paradise Lost as one can be? An agnostic, Lawrence repudiated Christianity very early in his career as a novelist, for example, in the sexually frank Sons and Lovers (1913).
Either man's work or his own gifts: who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed
And post o'er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait.
Because Lawrence describes the snake as "like a god" (45), "a king in exile, uncrowned in the underworld" (69), and "one of the lords / Of life" (71-72), someone for whom Lawrence must "stand and wait," the poem depicts a living creature that might remind one of the Christian God. Christ prepares for his second coming in which he will judge the good and the evil and send the former into heaven, and the latter "into outer darkness"; and the snake, Lawrence, suggests, is "Now due to be crowned again" (70), like Christ. The Old Testament terms God "the Lord of life and spirit" (2 Maccabees 14.46). Yet when Lawrence picks up the log and throws it at the snake, he dissociates it from godhead because it retreated "convulsed in undignified haste" (59). "Snake" is about a snake, an underworld king, but not about a punishing, all-powerful god. It is, however, about Lawrence the speaker, one who casts the talent given to him into the earth so that it is useless. Lawrence must "expiate" (do penance for) having driven his lord of life into the ground in an act that is "paltry ... vulgar ... mean" (64), that is "pettiness" itself. He alludes to Milton's sonnet to justify his own "standing and waiting" before the water-trough but also to refer to its New Testament source, the parable of the talents. That story gives a religious context to his petty act, just as Lawrence's allusion to Coleridge's "albatross" does. The guilty sailor shot it, an innocent bird bringing good to the ship in icy waters: "it were a Christian Soul, We hail'd it in God's name" (63-64).
In burying his one talent, the bad servant acted out of fear just as Lawrence did in "Snake" -- "And truly I was afraid, I was most afraid" -- when he drove the snake into an hole that gave him "A sort of horror" (52). The servant's anguish seemed to have come from cowardice, a terror that he would fail by losing the lord's talent entirely. The talents' parable can be read as a "no risk -- no reward" story. The servant did not fear the earth but used it as a kind of safe. Lawrence's motive for `burying' the talent, driving it into darkness, is very different. He fixates on that "dreadful hole" (560), "that horrid black hole" (52), and "the blackness" (53). Rather than wanting to rid himself of the snake in the earth, Lawrence revolts against its self-burial. It is an irony that his act hastens what he dreads most.
Lawrence's motive arises from his "accursed human education," which teaches not only that venomous snakes are to be killed on sight but that the earth itself, creator and destroyer, is terrible. He sets his poem in what we know to have been Taormina, on the verges of volcanic Etna, and depicts it "smoking." The lava emitted from fissures in the earth about Etna, the largest mountain in Europe, had destroyed villages or people in 1669, 1689, and 1843, and would do so in 1928, 1979, and 1987.
Mount Etna was active when Lawrence wrote "Snake," throughout which he anthropomorphizes the earth as an underworld bringer of death and life, using imagery that unites scatology and eating. The snake first emerges from "the burning bowels of the earth" (20, 30), "yellow-brown slackness" (8) and "earth-brown, earth-golden" (20), as if it were volcano excrement. Above ground, his tongue flicked "like a forked night on the air" (43), an image suggesting black lightning on a bright sky, and in escaping Lawrence the snake "Writhed like lightning" (60). Both similes make the snake out to be fire from the depths, like black lava. The earth's firy anus transforms itself into a face at the poem's end. The snake disappears into "my wall-face" (49), "the earth-lipped fissure in the wall-front" (61). Lawrence's images follow the Christian's idea of the devil in hell, excreting and eating sinners. This ancient dread, inculcated by a Christian education, seized Laurence's imagination and "overcame" (54) him.
Lawrence's last echoing of English poetry comes when he describes the snake as "one of the lords / Of life." He might be thinking of Emerson's "Experience" or of no. XXX in George Meredith's "Modern Love," a sequence of fifty sonnets. Meredith's novels and poems explored a sexually troubled world where men and women, often faithless and adulterous, were nonetheless honestly depicted. Although seldom explicit, Meredith's modernism would have appealed to Lawrence; and further, both were English. Sonnet XXX in Meredith's cycle describes humanity as "First, animals; and next / Intelligences at a leap," as "the lords of life," and finally as "scientific animals" insofar as they study nature. Meredith levels people and the creatures just as Lawrence does in "Snake." His plain affection for this cold-blooded reptile anticipates the environmentalism of the third quarter of the last century, but it also arises from Lawrence's idea of human "blood-consciousness," a powerful force independent of the mental faculties, one that he explored in Psychoanalysis and the Unconscious (1921) and Fantasia of the Unconscious (1922) at the very time he wrote "Snake." No doubt this poem can also be read erotically, as Lawrence's vision of a phallic serpent, the demonic seducer of Eve in the garden of Eden, hanging out of and re-entering the body of a firy procreative Earth. Given Lawrence's extraordinary visions of sex and death, such a reading can no doubt be sustained, although children of all ages, in and out of school, might be forgiven for missing the point, believing that he really did meet a snake one day at the water-trough and wrote about it in the same wide-eyed spirit as he did other living things in his Birds, Beasts and Flowers: Poems (1923).
Online text copyright © 2003, Ian Lancashire for the Department
of English, University of Toronto.
Published by the Web Development Group, Information Technology Services, University of Toronto Libraries.
Original text: D. H. Lawrence, Birds, Beasts and Flowers: Poems (London: Martin Secker, 1923): 113-16. PR 6023 A93B5 1923 Robarts Library. Roberts A27.
First publication date: 1921
Publication date note: The Dial 71 (July 1921): 19-21. Roberts C82
RPO poem editor: Ian Lancashire
RP edition: RPO 2000.
Recent editing: 4:2002/1/8*1:2002/9/9
Composition date note: See Kinkead-Weekes, 747
Form: Free Verse
Other poems by David Herbert Lawrence