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Snake – D H Lawrence

The poem, The Snake by D.H Lawrence, is a satirical presentation of the acquired human education that shamefully failed to show respect to a kingly, godly guest, a snake, a king in exile, the real owner of the earth who withdrew to its hole in the earth for fear of man. Read the summary, explanation and questions and answers.

  • The poem talks about the human education that prevailed in Sicily that believed that a snake, especially a golden one, is venomous and therefore should be killed.
  • Snakes consider themselves as the inhabitants of the earth while man thinks that he is the owner of the earth.
  • While man understands the earth as pieces owned by him, the snake considers the earth as one whole.
  • It is here one sees the contrast.
  • After all, human beings have learnt practically nothing more than to ill treat his honored guest and send him back in shame.
Blame the Bible
  • A very strong criticism here is against the Bible where the whole world saw the snake as the ultimate evil.
  • Bible in the book of Genesis describes man’s fall as caused by a snake.
  • Bible has portrayed snake as the base sinner and sin.
  • Man’s fear of the snake is Biblical in the first place and genetical in the second.
Blaming Urbanization
  • Urbanization is an evil but we have started believing it as something good.
  • Urbanization is not development, it is the beginning of the end.
  • Growing demand for more buildings and roads drove animals and snakes away from their homes.
Vocabulary
  • Pitcher – a container, usually with a handle and spout or lip, for holding and pouring liquids.
  • Fissure – a narrow opening produced by cleavage or separation of parts.
  • Muse – ponder, contemplate
  • Bowels – the inward or interior parts
  • Perverse – wilfully determined or disposed to go counter to what is expected or desired
  • Convulse – to cause to suffer violent
  • Paltry – ridiculously or insultingly small / mean / utterly worthless.
  • Accursed – damnable; detestable / under a curse; doomed; ill-fated.
  • Albatross – something burdensome that impedes action or progress / a seemingly inescapable moral or emotional burden, as of guilt or responsibility.
  • Expiate – to atone for; make amends or reparation for: to expiate one’s crimes.
  • Pettiness – mean / showing or caused by meanness of spirit
​The Poem from the Snake’s side. Do not SKIP this section. I took an hour to write this.
  • You know, mine is a happy family and we are a small family of my wife and two kids.
  • We lived in an enormous hole inside the wall of a house.
  • Being born in Sicily and golden in color, we were always scared of the sight of people.
  • You know, in Sicily, people kill golden snakes because we are poisonous.
  • It was a hot day and I felt like my throat burning – thirsty. Slowly and most tentatively I slithered out of my hole leaving my wife and children sleeping.
  • When I reached the water trough, there was no one so I started drinking water.
  • Hardly had I drunk a few drops when came the man who lived in the house.
  • He was a funny man and I had known him living alone in the house. My children argued that this man was a poet.
  • Well, if a golden snake is poisonous, a poet is more or less venomous. I had no interest in him.
  • I was startled at the sight of this man and was getting ready to escape into my tunnel when I saw him stop.
  • You know, all men do that. The first thing that they do on encountering a golden snake is they stop. It is fear, you know. He stood there as a marble piece.
  • I knew what he would do next. My mother used to tell – “Man’s fear lasts for ten seconds and in the eleventh second this fear gives way to bravery whereas a snake’s fear lasts for nine seconds. Run!”
  • Something stopped me from escaping. The man hadn’t moved since he saw me! A minute elapsed but he still didn’t attack me, strike me, nothing.
  • Curiously enough, I knew, I saw, he was casting an admiring glance, full of love, full of respect, as if he were saying – You are welcome, dear snake.
  • That was really funny and unexpected. To make sure that my judgments were correct, I studied his movement and expressions and drank water.
  • I had never drunk water from that trough as peacefully as that. I felt like singing a song and drinking.
  • The water tasted sweet and I was like a cow in the neighborhood that drank from the vase, peacefully and unruffled.
  • After drinking the water, I thought of thanking this man. I found no word to thank him so I left the water trough.
  • While getting back, my head already inside my tunnel, I decided to narrate the whole incident to my family.
  • I was almost in, still worshiping the first man who respected the first inhabitant of the earth, when suddenly this happened and it was the sound of a log that fell down outside my tunnel.
  • From tail to head I wriggled, I shouted a cry that woke my family up.
  • It took me seconds to understand what had happened outside. The man had dropped a log to frighten me!
  • Most shameful! On one side I felt my dignity wounded but that was repairable but on the other side, I felt a sort of pity for this man.
  • He was a coward. He didn’t kill me because he was the most cowardly man in Sicily. If he had killed me at the water trough that was quite common and judicious in Sicily.
  • I pity him.
The most important questions
  1. Bring out the irony in the poet’s act of dropping the stick that gave the snake an undignified shiver.
    The poet’s gentle behavior with snake while it was drinking water from his water trough was probably the only instance in the lives of the Sicilian snakes in history. In Sicily, snakes never expect a man to behave gently with them nor do a man let a snake go in a single piece. By behaving benevolently, considering the snake as a fellow creature, a glorious king, as God himself, the poet had brought the snake to a false security feeling. Probably the snake was returning to his hole once again, to spread word of a gentleman’s gentle behavior with it when the snake was shaken by the sound of a stick falling behind him. The snake recognized this sound, the sound that all snakes in Sicily dread since their birth. The poet’s act of mercy at one point clashing with his act of violence, deliberately or by chance is an irony.
  2. Why did the poet remember the albatross after dropping the log?
    The poet’s act of dropping the log was one of the most shameful act that he did. Be hospitable as a host and then tease the guest, the poet’s act deserves no excuse, no justification, no forgiveness. If the ancient mariner killed the albatross for no reason, the poet here hurt the snake’s self esteem for ever. If the ancient mariner carried with him the shame of guilt, the snake in the poem was doomed to carry thick shame for the rest of its life.
  3. Why is the snake said to be one of the lords of life?​
    Most people would not think of a snake as a majestic creature, but D.H. Lawrence makes it clear in this poem that he does. Many people would take a snake to symbolize sin and evil as seen in the Bible and the Garden of Eden, but actually Lawrence is using it in a majestic and noble light. Perhaps this is the case because he is paralleling society and the nobility can be sneaky and sinful yet still seem majestic, just like the snake.
  4. “And I have something to expiate, a pettiness” is the last and most powerful line of the poem. What does the poet expiate?
    Expiate is such a strong word meaning repent or atone for a crime. The poet wants to atone for his sin. He regrets throwing the log at the snake as he realized that the snake was not going to harm him. He wants to repent his pettiness and atone for the sin he has committed.
  5. Do you think that the poet means to criticize religions, especially the Biblical?
    The use of the word expiate and the talk of atoning for sins leads one to understand that religion is indeed a theme in this poem. The use of the snake as a symbol and the battle between good and evil in this poem are all reasons that religion can be seen as an undertone. The battle of good and evil is ongoing in the Bible and can be seen here in this poem, if not only just in the symbol of the snake itself but also in the interaction between the snake and the man being that the man believes he is good in close contrast to the snake whom he believes to be evil.

Stanza 1

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 me.

  • Water-trough – A wide, open mouthed container usually used for feeding cattle.
  1. Why was the poet to wait?
    The poet had to wait at his water trough because already a snake was drinking water at the trough. Out of respect and for fear for the intruder, the poet was to wait.
  2. Why does the poet accept that he was to wait?
    The poet could have shooed the snake away but his education was so sublime that he considered the snake equal to him, a co owner of the earth and therefore he decided to wait.
  3. What were the thoughts that lined up in the poet’s mind on encountering a snake at his water trough? 2 marks
    On encountering the snake at his water trough, the first reaction that the poet had was certainly fear and then, when he recovered from the initial fear of the snake, the poet was able to balance fear against the voice of his education.

Stanza 2

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, silently.

  • Reach down – Came down
  • Fissure – hole or a crack in the walls
  • Gloom – shade
  • Trailed – Slithered; moved
  • Slackness – Loosely hanging skin of a snake
  • Gum – The fleshy area where teeth grow
Questions & Answers
  1. Where did the snake come from?
    The snake came from a fissure in the earth wall near the water trough.
  2. Why is the snake entirely personified throughout the poem?
    The poet personifies the snake by addressing him with the same he, his and him because the poet was differently educated that he considered the snake someone equal to him.
  3. How does the poet describe the snake’s movement?
    The poet describes the snake in vivid details. Its upper skin yellow-brown, below soft belly, the snake trailed softly to the water trough and rested his throat peacefully to drink water.
  4. How did the snake drink the tap water?
    The snake drank water from the water trough without any fear of the poet’s presence. Its mouth straight, its gums straight, the snake let water sip into his long body.
  5. Who was the second-comer?
    The poet was the second-comer.
  6. What is very special about the poet that makes him think that he was a second comer? OR What is the poet’s world view?
    The poet was different from most of the ordinary Sicilians. He was such a differently educated man that he thought and believed that he was a second comer to the water trough even though it was his own water trough. He thought so because he considered that the snakes owned and ruled the earth before men removed forests for building his cities. He believed that man has to give way to snakes whenever they visit his house.

Stanza 3

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.

  • Cattle – Cows and other gentle animals
  • Vaguely – Not clearly; uncertain
  • Flicker – To move to and fro; vibrate
  • Two-forked – Having two branches
  • Muse – Think
  • Stoop – To bend forward
  • Burning-bowels – Hot undergrounds of the earth.
  • Sicilian-July – the extreme hot July in Sicily
  • Etna – an active volcano in Sicily
  1. Why is the snake’s lifting its head compared to that of cattle?
    While drinking water, cattle are not aware of their surroundings, nor are they worried about any possible threats. Cattle are found to be drinking peacefully. As the snake in the poem drank peacefully because it thought that the poet was a gentleman, differently educated, the snake too drank and lifted its head like cattle.
  2. What could the snake have mused for a moment?
    The snake could have mused about the poet. It could have thought about his character, his education being different from the rest in Sicily, about the height of his virtues and more. It also could have thought of the poet being his host and even of talking to its friends of him, proudly.
  3. Why is the snake said to have come from the burning bowels of the earth?
    The snake lived in a hole in the wall bordering the poet’s house. It was July and it was Sicily so the heat was extremely high, turning every inch of the island hot.
  4. What does the poet convey with the mention of Etna smoking?
    Etna is a volcano in Sicily. It is an active volcano and the reference is indicative of the heat that Sicily experienced at this time and the thirst the poet and the snake were suffering.

    • Out of Syllabus – Mount Etna
      Mount Etna is Europe’s highest and most active volcano. Towering above the city of Catania on the island of Sicily, it has been growing for about 500,000 years and is in the midst of a series of eruptions that began in 2001. It has experienced a variety of eruption styles, including violent explosions and voluminous lava flows. More than 25% of Sicily’s population lives on Etna’s slopes

Stanza 4

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.

  • Venomous – Poisonous
  • Voice of my education – The common beliefs taught in schools
  • Sicily – The largest island in the Mediterranean sea, part of Italy.
  • Voices in me – The poet thought differently; He didn’t believe in the common belief that snakes are to be killed.

Analysis

  1. What does the poet mean by the voice of his education?
    By the voice of his education, the poet refers to the artificial conscience that he had developed with the help of education.
  2. Why do people kill golden snakes in Sicily?
    In Sicily people believe that golden snakes are venomous and therefore should be killed.
  3. What is the reason why voices in the poet advised him to kill the snake?
    The poet had his own reasons and conscience to spare a snake but he was ruled by a more powerful instinct – the instinct to kill. In Sicily, men are characterized by the courage to kill deadly snakes and if a man didn’t kill a snake, he is said to be a coward.

Stanza 5

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!

  • Confess – admit
  • Pacified – Peacefully; happily
  • The burning bowels of this earth – The hot holes
  1. Why was the poet happy to have the snake in his garden?
    The poet was an educated man by his standards. His mind was so broad that he was of the opinion that a snake is earth’s prime owner and humans have brutally sent them to exile. To have the snake in his property was like being hospitable with an old king. By having the snake at his water trough, the poet was feeling like being honored by this king. He was glad also because he was able to think and act different from all the uncivilized Cicily.
  2. Why was the poet glad that the snake would go without thanking him?
    The poet was already glad that the snake would not leave a gesture of gratitude for the water it drank and the hospitality he wad been bestowed because by not being thankful, the snake could confirm the poet’s concepts and beliefs that snakes deserve respect, not sticks.

Stanza 6

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 honored?

  • Cowardice – Lack of courage to face danger, difficulty, opposition, pain, etc.
  • Perversity – Interested in doing what is not expected; antisocial; wayward.
  • Long (v) – Wish
  • Humility – The quality of being very humble; ability to respect other people.
  1. Why was the poet not able to find the reason for his sparing the snake?
    Generally people kill a snake, especially when it is spotted unexpectedly, because of fear that generates reflex energy and momentary courage. In Cicily people had another reason to kill a golden snake – education. With so many reasons swarming his reasoning, the poet could not find an easy answer.
  2. According to you, which of the reasons above best suits for the answer?
    In my opinion, the poet had all the three reasons to spare the snake.

Stanza 7

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.

  1. What was the poet’s feeling honored to have the snake in his garden?
    Though he was afraid of the snake, the poet had begun to feel honored by its presence because he had a strong conviction that snakes had inherited the earth long before human beings came to the earth. Besides, he was tormented by a guilt of conscience that men were responsible for the snakes’ exile.
  2. Why does the poet refer to the snake’s hole as ‘secret earth?’
    Though snakes are  found hiding in holes, away from human settlements, snakes are the uncrowned kings of the earth.

Stanza 8

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 a dream,
Proceeded to draw his slow length curving round
And climb again the broken bank of my wall-face.

  1. Why was the snake extremely glad after drinking water at the trough?
    It was probably the first time ever the snake drank water in peace. The poet’s hospitality had rendered a sense of security for the snake. The snake was glad that it realized its worth among educated human beings.
  2. Why is the snake compared to a God?
    The snake felt terribly impressed by the poet’s hospitality. Like God who feels like being respected and adored for His almighty status, the snake too was feeling respected, venerated and loved.

Stanza 9

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.

Questions & Answers
  1. Why is the snake’s hole said to be dreadful? OR What was the poet’s horror?

  2. What did the poet protest? Why did he find himself protesting?

Stanza 10

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

  1. How did the poet protest against the snake’s withdrawal?
  2. Why is the log said to be clumsy?
  3. What was the poet’s intention behind throwing the log?
  4. Bring out the poet’s half-mindedness while considering an attack upon the snake?

Stanza 11

I think it did not hit him,
But suddenly that part of him that was left behind
Convulsed in undignified haste.

  1. Why does the poet think that there was certain undignified haste in the snake’s movements?

Stanza 12

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.

  1. What was the snake’s response to the sound of the clatter?

Stanza 13

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.

  1. What act did the poet immediately regret?
    The poet regretted his dropping the clumsy log in such a way that it scared the snake.
  2. What made the poet think that he had done something mean?
    The poet found his act of dropping the log to be mean because he saw that it was an act devoid of any decency. It was not an act of bravery, it was not an act of boldness, it was not an act that any Sicilian – the least educated – would do in his senses.
  3. Why does the poet call his education, “accursed?”
    The poet is someone who thought that he was better educated than his countrymen. In his opinion, one should honor a snake as a king who returns after a long exile. However, after his dropping the log, he realized that his education was very mean and therefore accursed.

Stanza 14

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

  1. Why did the poet think about the albatross?
  2. Why did the poet wish the snake came back?

Stanza 15

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

  1. Why does the snake appear to the poet as a king in exile?
  2. How is the snake due to be crowned again?

Stanza 16

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

  1. Why is the snake said to be one of the lords of life?​
    Most people would not think of a snake as a majestic creature, but D.H. Lawrence makes it clear in this poem that he does. Many people would take a snake to symbolize sin and evil as seen in the Bible and the Garden of Eden, but actually Lawrence is using it in a majestic and noble light. Perhaps this is the case because he is paralleling society and the nobility can be sneaky and sinful yet still seem majestic, just like the snake.
  2. “And I have something to expiate, a pettiness” is the last and most powerful line of the poem. What does the poet expiate?
    Expiate is such a strong word meaning repent or atone for a crime. The poet wants to atone for his sin. He regrets throwing the log at the snake as he realized that the snake was not going to harm him. He wants to repent his pettiness and atone for the sin he has committed.
  3. Do you think that the poet means to criticize religions, especially the Biblical?
    The use of the word expiate and the talk of atoning for sins leads one to understand that religion is indeed a theme in this poem. The use of the snake as a symbol and the battle between good and evil in this poem are all reasons that religion can be seen as an undertone. The battle of good and evil is ongoing in the Bible and can be seen here in this poem, if not only just in the symbol of the snake itself but also in the interaction between the snake and the man being that the man believes he is good in close contrast to the snake whom he believes to be evil.
Next – Questions for Practice

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