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,
i o 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.
I’ve always liked these kinds of encounters – where the control and regulation of the ‘civil’, human world is challenged by wildness. I suppose this also speaks to internal boundaries within the poet – the liminal regions of our souls. There is, obviously, a nod to Eve and the Garden of Eden, and perhaps a fear of (resistance to) erotic transgression? The Apollonian drives off the Dionysian, do you think? A regret at not being “large” enough to renounce control, to let be what is?
One of the things I love about this poem is that it’s something wonderful which everyone seems to enjoy. Lawrence has expressed something that people seem to respond to – or rather, it’s a superbly written expression of something that strikes a chord. So it’s both the quality of the imagery and the nature of the thought/emotion. ‘Nature’ is an appropriate choice of word – surely one of the things that is responded to is a superb feeling for ‘Nature,’ of our difference to the snake (this, coupled with intimations of correspondences – we too go to the water-trough.) Thankfully Lawrence manages to make the poem primarily an expression of wonder at the brilliance of an animal, not a masochist self-laceration at our inadequacy. Human ‘pettiness’ is not dominant, but the encounter with something dangerous, beautiful and thrilling. The genius of this in ‘Snake’, and part of the reason for its success, is the ‘honour’ that is felt in the presence of this ‘guest’ – so the snake is at once an absolute transcendent other, ‘a god’, and something closer to us, that shares water with us, and (nearly) our space. Alongside absolute difference there is also a communality, and it is the subterranean possibility of ‘communication’ with a marvellous other, an other that it is also impossible to communicate with, that gives the poem it’s appeal. Snake conveys -and it does this so well it’s astonishing – the real and impossible intimacy of a gaze from an animal, one at once transcendent and earthbound. To exchange a look with a marvellous god that is also a real snake is to bring all possibilities within touch – but also keeping them at more than arm’s length, so they are not de-fanged by domesticity. (It is essential that this is a wild animal.)
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