Snake

Original Text: 
D. H. Lawrence, Birds, Beasts and Flowers: Poems (London: Martin Secker, 1923): 113-16. PR 6023 A93B5 1923 Robarts Library. Roberts A27.
2On a hot, hot day, and I in pyjamas for the heat,
3To drink there.
5I came down the steps with my pitcher
6And must wait, must stand and wait, for there he was at the trough before me.
7He reached down from a fissure in the earth-wall in the gloom
8And trailed his yellow-brown slackness soft-bellied down, over the edge of the stone trough
9And rested his throat upon the stone bottom,
10And where the water had dripped from the tap, in a small clearness,
11He sipped with his straight mouth,
12Softly drank through his straight gums, into his slack long body,
13Silently.
14Someone was before me at my water-trough,
15And I, like a second comer, waiting.
16He lifted his head from his drinking, as cattle do,
17And looked at me vaguely, as drinking cattle do,
18And flickered his two-forked tongue from his lips, and mused a moment,
19And stooped and drank a little more,
20Being earth-brown, earth-golden from the burning bowels of the earth
22The voice of my education said to me
23He must be killed,
24For in Sicily the black, black snakes are innocent, the gold are venomous.
25And voices in me said, If you were a man
26You would take a stick and break him now, and finish him off.
27But must I confess how I liked him,
28How glad I was he had come like a guest in quiet, to drink at my water-trough
29And depart peaceful, pacified, and thankless,
30Into the burning bowels of this earth?
31Was it cowardice, that I dared not kill him?
32Was it perversity, that I longed to talk to him?
33Was it humility, to feel so honoured?
34I felt so honoured.
35And yet those voices:
36If you were not afraid, you would kill him!
37And truly I was afraid, I was most afraid,
38But even so, honoured still more
39That he should seek my hospitality
40From out the dark door of the secret earth.
41He drank enough
42And lifted his head, dreamily, as one who has drunken,
43And flickered his tongue like a forked night on the air, so black,
44Seeming to lick his lips,
45And looked around like a god, unseeing, into the air,
46And slowly turned his head,
47And slowly, very slowly, as if thrice adream,
48Proceeded to draw his slow length curving round
49And climb again the broken bank of my wall-face.
50And as he put his head into that dreadful hole,
51And as he slowly drew up, snake-easing his shoulders, and entered farther,
52A sort of horror, a sort of protest against his withdrawing into that horrid black hole,
53Deliberately going into the blackness, and slowly drawing himself after,
54Overcame me now his back was turned.
55I looked round, I put down my pitcher,
56I picked up a clumsy log
57And threw it at the water-trough with a clatter.
58I think it did not hit him,
59But suddenly that part of him that was left behind convulsed in undignified haste,
60Writhed like lightning, and was gone
61Into the black hole, the earth-lipped fissure in the wall-front,
62At which, in the intense still noon, I stared with fascination.
63And immediately I regretted it.
64I thought how paltry, how vulgar, what a mean act!
65I despised myself and the voices of my accursed human education.
67And I wished he would come back, my snake.
68For he seemed to me again like a king,
69Like a king in exile, uncrowned in the underworld,
70Now due to be crowned again.
71And so, I missed my chance with one of the lords
73And I have something to expiate;
74A pettiness.
Taormina.

Notes

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).

Back to Line
4] carob-tree: red-flowered evergreen common to the Mediterranean. Back to Line
21] Etna: volvanic mountain in Sicily, Europe's highest. Back to Line
66] albatross: the bird that a sailor in Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" long repented killing. Back to Line
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
Publication Start Year: 
1921
Publication Notes: 
The Dial 71 (July 1921): 19-21. Roberts C82
RPO poem Editors: 
Ian Lancashire
RPO Edition: 
RPO 2000.
Form: