Feb 16, 2012

D.H. Lawrence, "Snake"

 I’ve delayed posting D.H. Lawrence’s “Snake” because it’s fairly long; but the language is accessible and the subject is at least somewhat interesting, so I’m going to offer it today and see what happens.

I’m not sure how much I like or admire the poem these days; it seems obvious, wordy, didactic, and prosaic, not to mention its arbitrariness in line breaks. Back in college, however, I found it deep, exotic, erotic and mystical at the same time—and therefore revolutionary. 

As an English major, one of the questions on my senior comprehensive exam was to write an analysis of a poem I’d memorized or knew well enough to quote extensively. I chose “Snake” and actually did well for once.

Lawrence was one of the first writers I became infatuated with. In the senior apartment I shared with three guys, I hung a poster of the man, looking terminally pensive and perceptive. My roommates were majoring in Economics and Chemistry; I took some guff.

Along with Wordsworth and Cummings, Lawrence introduced me to pantheism, or something like it, which seemed a more viable way of thinking and believing than other religions or mythologies I was aware of. That might be an area in which Old Banjo still agrees with Young Banjo. The earth and the universe are pretty spectacular, worth worship if anything is. Except for a few individual passages, I can’t say that for any dogmas I’ve met along the way. 

In my college years, I was reading much more for content than I do now; I’m tempted to say I never met a sermon I didn’t like back then, as long as it was a little catchier and more original than a Methodist “Thou Shalt Not.” Except for "Impeach Earl Warren," I’m pretty sure bumper stickers had not yet been invented. My bumper was screaming for a good sticker, and I didn't know who Earl Warren was.

I think I remember a critical eye from Lawrence toward Miriam in Sons and Lovers because she needed to pick and possess a flower, not just admire its beauty and accept its otherness. Is that even in the book, or have I made it up?

Well, if you're me, that's all fascinating to ponder, but here’s the poem. What do you think? Is it a barrel of self-indulgent message and faux exoticism, or is there some authentic language and thought that are worth our while?

By D.H. Lawrence

A snake came to my water-trough
On a hot, hot day, and I in pyjamas for the heat,
To drink there.
In the deep, strange-scented shade of the great dark carob-tree
I came down the steps with my pitcher
And must wait, must stand and wait, for there he was at the trough before

He reached down from a fissure in the earth-wall in the gloom
And trailed his yellow-brown slackness soft-bellied down, over the edge of
the stone trough
And rested his throat upon the stone bottom,
And where the water had dripped from the tap, in a small clearness,
He sipped with his straight mouth,
Softly drank through his straight gums, into his slack long body,

Someone was before me at my water-trough,
And I, like a second comer, waiting.

He lifted his head from his drinking, as cattle do,
And looked at me vaguely, as drinking cattle do,
And flickered his two-forked tongue from his lips, and mused a moment,
And stooped and drank a little more,
Being earth-brown, earth-golden from the burning bowels of the earth
On the day of Sicilian July, with Etna smoking.
The voice of my education said to me
He must be killed,
For in Sicily the black, black snakes are innocent, the gold are venomous.

And voices in me said, If you were a man
You would take a stick and break him now, and finish him off.

But must I confess how I liked him,
How glad I was he had come like a guest in quiet, to drink at my water-trough
And depart peaceful, pacified, and thankless,
Into the burning bowels of this earth?

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?
I felt so honoured.

And yet those voices:
If you were not afraid, you would kill him!

And truly I was afraid, I was most afraid, But even so, honoured still more
That he should seek my hospitality
From out the dark door of the secret earth.

He drank enough
And lifted his head, dreamily, as one who has drunken,
And flickered his tongue like a forked night on the air, so black,
Seeming to lick his lips,
And looked around like a god, unseeing, into the air,
And slowly turned his head,
And slowly, very slowly, as if thrice adream,
Proceeded to draw his slow length curving round
And climb again the broken bank of my wall-face.

And as he put his head into that dreadful hole,
And as he slowly drew up, snake-easing his shoulders, and entered farther,
A sort of horror, a sort of protest against his withdrawing into that horrid black hole,
Deliberately going into the blackness, and slowly drawing himself after,
Overcame me now his back was turned.

I looked round, I put down my pitcher,
I picked up a clumsy log
And threw it at the water-trough with a clatter.

I think it did not hit him,
But suddenly that part of him that was left behind convulsed in undignified haste.
Writhed like lightning, and was gone
Into the black hole, the earth-lipped fissure in the wall-front,
At which, in the intense still noon, I stared with fascination.

And immediately I regretted it.
I thought how paltry, how vulgar, what a mean act!
I despised myself and the voices of my accursed human education.

And I thought of the albatross
And I wished he would come back, my snake.

For he seemed to me again like a king,
Like a king in exile, uncrowned in the underworld,
Now due to be crowned again.

And so, I missed my chance with one of the lords
Of life.
And I have something to expiate:
A pettiness. 


Brenda's Arizona said...

Thanks for introducing me to this poem, Banjomyn. The poem is like an unsaid sermon. It hints at regrets we all have... even those regrets for actions that no one else saw.

My brain wants to offer a blackboard eraser to Mr. Lawrence so he can undo throwing the stick/log.
And how many people today say DHL's action make him a sissy?

Anonymous said...

Well, this poem, it's all and only about sex, isn't it? I don't remember all that much about Lawrence, except the attraction and repulsion he felt towards females and, you know, doing it.

Love your photo.

Pasadena Adjacent said...

so.... is it a cigar or is it a "sometimes a cigar is just a cigar" cigar?

Banjo52 said...

Brenda, regret, yes. Even today, I think the poem's decent at showing that. (I think it was this poem that taught me the word, "expiate.")

AH, I sure think the snake is about as phallic as a snake, or anything can be in the great Who Wants To Be a Phallus contest. In those days, I tried to make Lawrence deeper and more complex than that, and I think The Academy still finds him so. But except for a few poems, I haven't been back to him since college, so I'm not voting.

PA, that's the question, all right, but I guess I just tipped my answer about the poem, if not all of Lawrence.

All, maybe my disenchantment with DHL began when I visited the ranch he and Frieda rented, near Taos, NM. The guide said the people on the neighboring ranch a mile or so away regularly heard him beating and yelling at the horses. So there's another facet of Lawrencian passion for ya.

Brenda's Arizona said...

Man, I had NO idea that this poem was really about sex. Guess it shows that I went to southern conservative schools... sigh.
So, sometimes a cigar is a snake?

Pasadena Adjacent said...

That would destroy my relationship to DHL. I do remember reading a short story about a child and a wooden rocking horse. I also remember liking it

Anonymous said...

And sometimes a snake is a banana, and sometimes a banana is just a banana. But sometimes it's a cigar. The Rocking Horse Winner. That I remember clearly, and my prof's Freudian take on it. And there's the really creepy 50's Brit film.

Banjo52 said...

Read "Rocking Horse W." as a freshman, had no idea what the hell was going on. The next Godzilla should morph constantly among cigar, snake, banana. What's funnier than sex?

Ken Mac said...

Enjoyed your essay today and will return to read Snake. Thanks for comments at my place. They do look like old people don't they?

Kitty said...

Hi Banjo,
I liked the poem quite a bit, though couldn't make anything of the last two lines. I like how the language mimicked the movement of snakedom, looping onto itself.

RuneE said...

The sex element seems pretty obvious, also to me. But do I also see an element of pacifism (in the political sense)? Of a growing respect for what is different - and then anger at oneself when that respect is not upheld.

Oh, well - I'm not just enough of a poet :-)

PS Thank you for the comment the Twelve Windows. They were all part of one large, dilapidated window. I have just adjusted a little bit here and there.

Lovers' Lane