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).
72] Lawrence likely refers to George Meredith's Modern Love (1862), XXX:
What are we first? First, animals; and next 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.
Cf. 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. Back to Line