Featured Anthology: Earth Shattering – D. H. Lawrence

The third poem to feature from Earth Shattering is Snake by D. H. Lawrence. From the fifth section of our featured anthology, ‘Loss and Persistence’, this poem forms part of a collection that possess binary themes, some in celebration of the rapidly vanishing natural world and others in lamentation of what has been lost. There are also poems that recognise the glimmer of hope in perserverance of nature and in the effort of humans to recycle, to conserve and to implement environmental consideration.

Snake appeared in Lawrence’s 1923 collection Birds, Beasts and Flowers, which included some of his preeminent reflections on the “flux of life and the ‘otherness’ of the non-human world” and as this poem identifies, the downfalls of an ‘accursed human education’. These poems are an affirmation of the grandeur and the mystery of nature, of which the snake in this poem typifies: the snake is an ordinary (albeit probably poisonous) reptile, ‘yellow-brown slackness soft-bellied’, but at the same time it possess a mythical, godlike quality, one of the ‘lords’ of the ‘underworld’ embodying all the dark inexplicable forces of nature that are feared and neglected by humans.

Snake

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,
Silently.

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 the Sicilian July, with Etna smoking.

The voice of my eduation said to me
He must be killed,
For in Sicily the black, black snakes are innocent, the
gold are venemous.

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 our 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, intothe air,
And slowly turned his head,
And slowly, very slowly, as if thrice adream,
Proceeded to draw down 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 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 excile, uncrowned in the underworld,
Now due to be crowned again.

And so, I misssed my chance with one of the lords
Of life.
And I have something to expiate;
A pettiness.

D. H. Lawrence, 1923

(featured in Earth Shattering (2007, Bloodaxe Books), edited by Neil Astley.)