Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Reflecting on "Snake" by D.H. Lawrence

I know nothing about D.H. Lawrence other than getting him confused with T.E. Lawrence (of "Lawrence of Arabia" fame). Now I want to get to know this man. I came across a poem of his (D.H.) that I could not put down as I returned to it repeatedly throughout the day. The title is simply, "Snake." Should I say the poem is striking is not to make a pun for it truly is striking, mezmerizing. Like a snake. It would do the reader great good to take in the entire work for himself or herself here before continuing.

The more I read the poem, the more observations I made which in turn led to many questions. First permit a small notation for the remarkable rhythm of the piece in it's irregular stanzas:

"A snake came to my water-trough
On a hot, hot day, and I in pyjamas for the heat,
To drink there."

He meanders along his path to the water trough and brings the reader up short as if grabbing our arm to prevent another step. Two beautiful stanzas caught my attention, the first being:

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

Permit this observation here: so far Lawrence has alluded to "my water trough." Hold that thought as we observe the second stanza found later in the poem:

"I wished he would come back, my snake."

The sense of invasion of property shifts from the trough to the snake; but, the reasons are astounding as we should see shortly. The one snapshot that held me most was this:

". . . And flickered his tongue like a forked night on the air, so black . . ."

That was not a black tongue simply, but a rich, deep tongue of night. Here we may refer to a theme that Lawrence uses that cause the reader to think more deeply about this snake drinking at his water trough, and by noting these themes we observe a shift in imagery as the snake becomes much more than a snake. Lawrence will repeatedly use "dark" words, referring to the snake coming out of the "gloom"; from the "burning bowls of earth" (he uses this phrase twice); the "black, black snakes"; the "dark door of secret earth"; the "black hole" in the wall; the "blackness" of the "black hole" to which the snake returns.

What amplifies the mystery of this dark imagery is that Lawrence first notes this snake is golden colored, not black. He recalls (then strangely, later laments) how he was taught that black snakes are "the innocent, the gold venemous." The reason this is important is because this beautiful, bright creature is deadly, coming and later returning to his home that seems nearly hellish. Underscoring this thought is Lawrence's reference to the god-likeness, the stature of this creature:

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

This is chilling as Lawrence is describing a creature visiting from another world. This leads us to note four subtle references within the work. First, one cannot read this and not think of Kipling. Second, the Biblical reference to the serpent in the garden is clear, being there before the first man. The writer carries on a wonderful dialogue with himself concerning killing the animal. This leads one to wonder about that first meeting of Adam and Eve in the garden, being met by the serpent. Why did they not kill him except that they took the beast to be just one of the animals of the field. Nothing seemed amiss . . . at first.

The second reference Lawrence is less subtle, but the meaning is clear when he says of the retreating snake, "And I thought of the alabtross." This is a clear reference to Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and the lesson of the albatross found there. Here, the snake does not die, but is gone nonetheless.

Finally, the already mentioned passage regarding the regalness of the snake, like a king, is a nod to Milton's "Paradise Lost." The question now is, which is Paradise and would he really want this one to be king? How is it he is so filled with fear yet calls the reptile "one of the lords of life"?

Lawrence ends the poem considering the need to atone for omission, of thinking too lightly of things that really matter--perhaps regarding spiritual matters.

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