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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
I looked round, I put down my pitcher,
I picked up a clumsy log
And threw it at the water-trough with a clatter.
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.
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.
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:
Taormina isn’t at its hottest in July, but it’s getting there. From the beginning of June onward you can sense the debilitating heat and humidity of a Sicilian high summer in August, and appreciate the shade offered by high walls, overhanging trees, and the soothing effect of trickling water. David Herbert Lawrence was in Taormina from 1920 to 1923 and it was here he wrote Snake, one of his most well known poems.
In Taormina today there’s no sense of celebration about Lawrence’s stay, and for native Sicilians he was just one of many cultural tourists who visited or spent time there. Starting with Goethe is 1786, by the time Lawrence arrived nearly 140 years later the place had already seen the arrival and departure of Friedrich Nietzche, Richard Wagner, Czar Nicholas I, and Oscar Wilde, and he was to be followed by (among others) Evelyn Waugh, Bertrand Russell, Roald Dahl, Henry Faulkner, and Tennessee Williams; Truman Capote even lived in the same house where Lawrence stayed. Of them all, however, he is the one to be immortalised to the extent that his former residence is on
and the building incorporates a commemorative stone, shown in the header to this piece. The road itself is narrow so it’s difficult to take a good photo of the house itself, and the plaque indicates that its original walls are now heavily rendered with cement but, if you go past the property and follow the curve of the road, eventually you can see the rear of the property, the shaded courtyard and wall referred to in the poem, and the steps he descended with his pitcher.
Today there are additional, newer houses jammed into the area but you can sense how it was in Lawrence’s day, and the view is still as stunning as it must have been for him.
Snake retains its impact and relevance as a poem as we have become more aware of the precarious status of wildlife, and recognise the impact of humanity upon nature. If you’re familiar with Lawrence’s novels, short stories and plays then his affinity with and appreciation of the natural world will come as no surprise; as the son of a coal miner growing up in a small pit-village near Nottingham, a theme in his work is how the pressures of hard manual labour, industrial society and social class can distort relationships – not just between men and women, but between people and the natural world.
In the poem he illustrates this contradiction between civilised values (“the voice of my education”) and the brutal behaviour it encourages (“if you were not afraid you would kill him”). He acts as he might have been expected to (even though no-one was witnessing the event and passing judgement upon him), but ineptly, and then regrets the vindictiveness of his behaviour. If he had been true to himself he would not have intervened, would have have been happy to watch and wait for water as he witnessed the rare sight of a snake in daylight, and the creature may have been encouraged to return on other occasions.
Coincidentally, about the same time that Lawrence was living in Taormina George Orwell was working as a colonial police officer in Burma and writing about his experiences there. Orwell (real name Eric Blair) had a very different background to Lawrence as he was from an established middle class family and educated at private schools including Eton, but a dozen or so years after Lawrence wrote Snake, Orwell published Shooting An Elephant in which he described similar misgivings concerning society’s expectations and values, and triggered also by an encounter with a wild creature.
Orwell describes how he had been summoned as a police officer, the local representative of colonial authority, to an incident in which an elephant was reported to have rampaged and killed a villager. By the time he arrived the elephant was tranquil, but the villagers expected him to take control of the situation and shoot the elephant as retribution. The elephant was a valuable asset of a local logging business and could do the work of 100 men, but Orwell was under pressure from the community who had clear expectations of what he should do. Against his better judgement, but to satisfy the mob, he shoots the elephant but then immediately regrets doing so.
I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys … it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the “natives,” and so in every crisis he has got to do what the “natives” expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it.
For different reasons, and in different ways, both Lawrence and Orwell recognise that the veneer of “civilisation”, the social values, beliefs and behavioural norms that we are expected to conform to often results in people acting in ways they don’t want to. Orwell outlined this alienation from our own humanity further in his parable Animal Farm in which he contrasts human and animal behaviour. Most of Lawrence’s novels feature characters who struggle to conform to social expectations, or who explicitly reject such values. In a later poem towards the end of his life Lawrence reflects that human society doesn’t have much to commend it.
A lizard ran out on a rock and looked up, listening
no doubt to the sound of the spheres.
And what a dandy fellow! the right toss of a chin for you
and swirl of a tail!
If men were as much men as lizards are lizards
they’d be worth looking at.
There’s a simplicity in Lawrence’s poetry that arises out of these beliefs. He rejects formal poetic forms, and as free verse his lines have the lightness and rhythm of natural speech or prose. Unless you knew who wrote it, there’s little in style, or grammar, or vocabulary to indicated that it was written about 100 years ago.
Further, when you consider that Lawrence’s literary contemporaries included Ezra Pound, TS Eliot, James Joyce, and Virginia Woolf, he seems so very much more contemporary than those “modernists”. Even in poetry his writing was at the time when the poetic norm was the then recently published Gerard Manley Hopkins (see Third Thursday (15) here) or those poets writing of their experience of the First World War like Edward Thomas, Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves Siegfried Sassoon, Isaac Rosenberg, or Rupert Brooke (mentioned here); his poetic style is more like that of the Beat poets you might find in San Francisco in the 1960s: Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, or Allen Ginsburg.
Lawrence was only 44 when he died. From the age of 16 he had suffered from recurring bouts of pneumonia and this led to the tuberculosis that killed him. He spent most of adult life abroad seeking climates more sympathetic to his condition, first in Europe and the Mediterranean area, and then travelling through Sri Lanka and Australia to New Mexico in the USA, but this restlessness was also driven by his belief that he was neither welcome nor appreciated in Britain.
Although his reputation as a literary figure was secure through his association with Bloomsbury contemporaries such as Eliot, Leonard & Virginia Woolf, I have an inkling that he would have liked to have been thought of as “an awkward bugger” (in the Nottinghamshire vernacular) who didn’t fit into any of conventional categories. The more you read about him, the more complex he becomes, and at his death only EM Forster and The Manchester Guardian seemed appreciative of his talents.
His difficulties had started in 1912 when he eloped with a married woman who was from a prominent German aristocratic family and a distant cousin of the wartime flying ace Manfred von Richthofen. This ticked sufficient boxes to have him pigeonholed as immoral and unpatriotic – to the extent he was arrested in Germany before the war as a suspected British spy, and harassed by the military in Britain during the war as a suspected German spy.
He remained unpopular until the obscenity trial in 1960 that sought to ban the publication of Lady Chatterley’s Lover in the UK. This cleared his reputation to the extent that Sons and Lovers became included on school reading lists and there were the big movies like Ken Russell’s Women in Love. But he went out of fashion again: some feminist writers in the early 1970s took against aspects of his writing and nowadays he’s an invisible figure; there might be a few odd volumes in your local public library but I doubt if you’ll find him the shelves of your local bookshop.