‘Snake’ by D.H. Lawrence is a sixteen stanza poem that is separated into stanzas of varying lengths. Some of these stanzas contain two lines, while the longest stretches out to seventeen. They are all written in free verse. This means that there is no specific pattern of rhyme or rhythm. The meter changes throughout, allowing Lawrence to alter the speed with which a reader moves through the poem.
The poem begins with the speaker describing coming upon the snake in his pyjamas. He was unprepared to see it but immediately happy it was there. Although pleased to see the animal, and more than willing to wait his turn, his inner voice was talking to him. The “voice of his education” was telling him to kill the snake—that he was only refraining from doing so because he was a coward.
The speaker admits that he was frightened of the snake, but did not want to drive it away. He liked looking at it and felt honored that it had come to him. Finally, the snake stopped drinking and wriggled through a hole in the wall. The speaker didn’t like to watch this happen and threw a log at the wall. This only causes the snake to disappear faster and makes the speaker feel regret for his petty action. This is something he says he has to atone for at the end of ‘Snake.’
Although Snake is quoted in full below, you can also read the poem at here.
While there is no specific rhyme scheme, there are moments of rhyme within the text. There are small rhymes, such as “tree,” “he” and “me,” and larger ones like “waiting” and “smoking.” This helps to unify the poem in a loose, less structured way. There is a great emphasis placed on the speaker’s tone, which is mostly at ease, or at peace with the entire scene. Although, there are moments of conflict in which he is clearly agitated, mostly at himself.
Alliteration is one of the most prevalent techniques Lawrence utilizes in ‘Snake.’ A great example is in the first line of the second stanza where the letter “s” is used three times in a row: “Strange-scented shade.” In fact, if a reader skims through the lines, there are an unusually large number of words that begin with “s,” perhaps speaking to the generalized “ssssss” sound associated with snakes.
Another technique one should take note of is assonance, or the repetition of a vowel sound multiple times in a line. The same line of the second stanza proves to be a great example of this as well. Long and short “e” sounds are used throughout the line, like an undercurrent, connecting the beginning to the end. Assonance, as well as its partner, consonance, are a way of providing a text with a sense of rhythm without structured meter.
Analysis of Snake
A snake came to my water-trough
On a hot, hot day, and I in pyjamas for the heat,
To drink there.
In the first stanza of this piece, the speaker begins by explaining a few simple events which are the foundation for the rest of the text. He states that one day, when he was going out to his “water-trough” he found a snake. It was a particularly hot day, something that is emphasized throughout the repetition of “hot” twice, and the snake was there to drink.
The fact the speaker states that he was in his “pyjamas” lets the reader know that he was unprepared to meet the snake. Plus, it was probably early in the morning that this encounter occurred. There is an interesting way that Lawrence arranges the syntax of the first stanza so that the final line “To drink there” applies to both the snake and the speaker.
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
In the second stanza, he sets the scene further. They are under a “dark carob tree,” a kind of evergreen tree and it is creating a “strange-scented shade.” This is a great example of alliteration, as was stated in the introduction.
There is something of importance that the speaker notes about the snake. “He” was there first. By referring to the snake as a “he” and acknowledging “his” rights to drink water if he wants to, the speaker is showing respect for the animal. His opinion about the creature grows more complex as the poem progresses.
Lawrence uses reception as emphasis again in the third line of the second stanza, with “wait” appearing twice. Then, just like in the first stanza, the last line is very short and simple: “before me.” It is a conclusion the speaker reaches easily without inner debate.
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,
The third stanza is longer than the previous two and is used to describe how the snake moved to drink. In the first line, he states that the snake was reaching down from a “fissure in the earth-wall.” It is like the animal is coming from the earth itself. There are a number of compound words in these lines and they are used to great effect. The snake is described as “yellow-brown” and “soft-bellied.” He moved down from the wall and let his throat rest “upon the stone bottom.”
Lawrence concludes this stanza with a clear description of how the snake drank, ending the stanza with another simple line, “Silently.”
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
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.
From the last stanzas, the speaker’s tone is clear. He feels at peace within the scene—happy to wait and watch the snake. This connects to the snake’s slow movements. In this stanza, the snake recognized that the speaker was there and “looked at” him “vaguely.” This reminds the speaker of how cattle drink. The snake acknowledged the speaker with a flick of its tongue and then “drank a little more.”
The two have now seen and recognized one another. The snake is going to take advantage of his early arrival to the trough, and the speaker as the “second-comer” must wait.
In the last lines of this section, the poet’s own location is added into the text. This is great evidence to support that Lawrence is the speaker. The speaker was living out another hot day, one that was backed by Mount Etna, in Sicily, Italy. It was “smoking.”
The voice of my education said to me
He must be killed,
For in Sicily the black, black snakes are innocent, the gold
After spending a few minutes with the snake the speaker hears his “voice of…education” talking to him. This is his upbringing and all the ideologies that are associated with animals, telling him what he needs to do. It is even more complex than that though as he has the social pressure of Sicily on his back as well.
Snakes, his mind says, should be killed. But then in Sicily, the “black snakes are innocent, the gold are venomous.” These ideas come together on top of another larger one, that of the story of the Garden of Eden and the malevolence of the snake.
Stanzas Six and Seven
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?
The sixth stanza is short, only two lines. It is the voice in his head telling him that he isn’t a man unless he kills the snake. The voice is violent. It tells him to “take a stick” and “break him now.” There is no hesitation in his mind, nor any grey area between right and wrong. Snakes sometimes present a threat, but usually don’t, Lawrence’s speaker is clearly having a hard time deciding what this occasion calls for.
In the seventh stanza, he admits to himself and to the listener that he likes the snake. He was happy that the animal had come to spend time at his water-trough. With alliteration playing a role again, the speaker concludes the stanza by imagining the peaceful circle this meeting could result in. The snake could depart “thankless / Into the burning bowels” of the earth. It could be that simple. His confusion is further emphasized in the next two stanzas.
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.
In the eighth stanza, the speaker presents the reader with a number of questions. These outline the contrast between his “voice of education” and his own current feelings towards the snake. He is trying to understand why he feels the way he does.
He is worried that he is showing “cowardice” by not daring to kill the snake. Or, that maybe his desire to speak to the animal is “perverse.” The meaning of the encounter is made quite clear through these questions and the previous stanza. The speaker feels “honoured” that the snake chose to come to him, to trust him and his water. They exist in the same space, with the same needs. They are together without violence and he feels the specialness of that.
Lawrence’s use of anaphora in these lines, with the repetition of “Was,” emphasizes the speaker’s inquiry. The questions build up until the final simple line, “I felt so honoured.”
And yet those voices:
If you were not afraid, you would kill him!
The ninth stanza is the return of the negative and violent voice. It tells him that the only reason he is holding back from killing the snake is that he is afraid. While this poem is clearly an example of man versus nature, it is also a perfect insight into the ways that man comes up against man, self against self.
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.
The speaker admits in the tenth stanza that he was afraid of the snake. But, the fear was worthless to him than the honor of the moment. He wants to present a hospitable water-trough for the snake, one that pleases him as he comes “out the door” of 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.
In the first part of the eleventh stanza, and in the second, there is a great deal of repetition. This can be seen through the use and resume of “And” as well as the number of times that “slow” appears in the lines.
These lines describe how the snake finished drinking. He lifted his head slowly and flicked his tongue as if licking his lips. This all happened in what seemed like slow motion. With a series of elegant and god-like movements, he turned around and headed back into the “broken bank” of the wall.
In the ninth line of this section, a reader can see assonance, or the repetition of a specific vowel sound, at work. The long and short “a” sounds are scattered throughout that line. The same can be said about the seventh and eighth, but with the presence of long and short “o’s.”
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
Overcame me now his back was turned.
There is an interesting contrast presented between the clear scene at the trough and the wall in these lines. It is not a nice place to head back to. It is, the speaker states, a “dreadful hole.” But, perhaps to the snake, this is not true.
The darkness of the hole seems to spread up to the speaker who feels horrified at the snake’s retreat. It “Overcame” him when the snake turned his back. He is especially opposed to the willingness of the snake to enter into darkness. The “drawing” of his body behind him is too much for the speaker to handle.
If there was something he could do to stop the snake from leaving, he would. This is exactly what he does in the twelfth stanza.
I looked round, I put down my pitcher,
I picked up a clumsy log
And threw it at the water-trough with a clatter.
Within three lines the speaker makes a choice. It comes about quickly, in contrast to the slowness of the previous eleven stanzas. He picks up a log, perhaps too big for its purpose, and throws it at the “water-trough.”
I think it did not hit him,
But suddenly that part of him that was left behind convulsed
in an 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.
When he threw the log at the snake it did not hit him, the speaker thinks. But, it did speed up his departure. Now, the speaker doesn’t have to watch the snake move into the hole, but he has to deal with his own actions.
He stared “with fascination” at the hole, and then immediately regretted his actions.
Stanzas Fourteen and Fifteen
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.
The speaker does not want this last human act to be the conclusion of their interaction. He felt after it was over that it was “paltry” and “vulgar.” He blames his choice on the voice in his head that told him that it was the right choice to attack the animal, even half-heartedly.
In the fifteenth stanza of ‘Snake’ the speaker compares the snake to the albatross in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.’ He would like the snake to come back, just like the albatross did. He felt connected to it.
Stanzas Sixteen and Seventeen
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
And I have something to expiate:
In the last lines, he compares the snake again to a being with power, this time a king. But, a king in exile. He is in a world that is not his own and is “uncrowned.” Others might not recognize the worth he has, but the speaker did. So much so, that with the snake gone it feels as if he is even mightier. It is time for him to be crowned again.
This makes the separation between the two all the more poignant. He knows he missed an opportunity “with one of the lords/ Of life.” The poem concludes with the speaker offering up the admission of his own pettiness. He has to “expiate” or atone for it. This is connected to the religious allusions ever-present when snakes are used as symbols in literature.