“Snake” is from the series entitled Birds, Beasts and Flowers. It exemplifies the poet’s perspective of the animal world. Lawrence drew the inspiration of this poem from a meeting with a snake at his watering trough in 1920-21 when he lived at Fontana Vecchia in Taormina. The poems are described by Mr.Megroz as epoch-making as they are unprecedented in their range, and in the accuracy and intensity of their perceptions.The movement of the loose verse echoes the movement of the snake.
The poet asserts that it was a sultry afternoon in Sicily, as it was month of July. The poet comes to the tap to collect water. As he reaches an acrob-tree in the vicinity, he is stunned to find a yellowish brown snake drinking water from the trough. It lugs its slack body over the edge of the trough. It drank water with so much dignity, that the poet was compelled by an inherent reverence for it to wait for his chance to draw water.
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,
The snake seems to have etiquette of its own. And, at the moment the poet hailed as a rational being, was second to this creature of instinct. The snake lifted his head and looked at the poet vaguely and resumed his business of drinking water. This is the importance that the snake gives the poet. His action was as innocent as that of cattle drinking, and appears to be as harmless. The snake seemed to possess a sophistication of his own. The poet seems to question: In what way was the refinement of the Human World superior to this? He flickered his two-forked tongue assertively,and exerted his individuality in his own way.
The poet’s voice of education instructs him to kill the snake. For in Sicily, black snakes were deemed to be harmless, and the Golden ones venomous. The poet’s voice of masculinity commanded him to kill the snake lest he be branded a coward. These two concepts are notions constructed by culture. Social customs are always relative. What may be right for one, may be wrong for another.
And voices in me said, If you were a man
You would take a stick and break him now, and finish him off.
Ironically, the above lines, far from portraying man as a product of civilized culture, depicts him as a savage. The irony and contrast of the upheld notions of civility are brought out here.The snake, though venomous, does not hurt human beings and is harmless unless provoked. Therefore, it is an inch taller in the sense that it minds its own business, and does not unnecessarily interfere in human affairs, the way humans intrude into the lives of the snakes. At that particular moment ,both the Man and the Snake are united in their need for water. Both the human and animal worlds are unified in their survival instinct. He develops a fondness for the snake who appears as a guest in his abode. This instant admiration is also purely instinctual, it is the reverence for the lord of life. One is reminded of the Freudian dictum: “Civilization is the denial of instinct.”
When the snake turns around to recoil into his hole, the poet all of a sudden as though compelled by the Voices hurls a log at him. The snake clumsily hurries into his den. The poet then reverts to square number one. He regrets his action as mean and vulgar. He likens himself to the Ancient Mariner who killed the albatross that aided him in his endeavour,and was compelled to expiate his sin. The snake appeared to be like a king in exile in his hole, whereas in the open air he was like a king with all his sovereignty.
At another level, the poem symbolizes the relegation of sexuality in the form of instinct. The snake has phallic connotations. The poet gives an impression to his fellow human-beings not to put an end to their sexuality as a social taboo, not to feel remorseful about it. But to channel it in the right sprit and direction, ethically and healthily.
© Rukhaya MK 2010
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