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Facing up to, and attempting to understand and accept one's own snakes that lie low in the darkness of one's being, regardless of what is considered socially acceptable—this is the speakers mental battle in D.H. Lawrence's “Snake.” This poem is so rich in imagery, that it almost completely hides the deeper meaning. Only upon further analysis of D.H. Lawrence's use of diction and symbolism in the poem, does the reader start to gain real insight into the battle that is really taking place in the speakers mind. The speaker battles with what has been ingrained in him by society and what his true feelings are. On the surface, this poem appears to be about the battle between feelings of respect and awe at the wonder of nature, and the fear felt by the speaker upon seeing the snake. However, the surface images used in this poem are really just symbolic of a much more common psychodynamic state.
This poem begins with the speaker coming face to face with the snake at the water-trough (Lawrence 1-6). The fact that the speaker drinks from a trough puts him on the same level as any animal, symbolizing the speaker's true underlying animal instinct. The trough itself represents the speaker's consciousness. The snake symbolizes the repressed feelings of the speaker. The repetition of “hot” signifies the pressures or ideals of the world that beat down upon the speaker. The speaker is in his pajamas signifying his humility upon approaching this repressed feeling. As the speaker slowly approaches the snake he feels comforted by “the shade of the great dark carob-tree” (Lawrence 1-6). This represents the speaker's initial feelings of comfort and relief from the pressures of the world as he begins to come closer to his repressed feeling or true inner state. The inner state is more comforting and natural to the speaker than the ideals that have been beat into him by society. The use of the words “deep” and “down”, show how the speaker must really go deep within himself to face this seemingly unacceptable urge or feeling. The use of a pitcher, “I came down the steps with my pitcher” is symbolic of the speaker going to gather his thoughts about the issue (Lawrence 1-6). The repetition of the words, “must” and “wait” begin to show the speakers internal conflict. Society has taught the speaker not to entertain such a thought or feeling, so the speaker waits for it to pass.
After the poem's first turn, the speaker watches and analyzes the snake. The snake reaching, “down from a fissure in the earth-wall in the gloom” signifies that this emotion only occurred because of a flaw in the speaker's character that exposes the true dark recesses of his mind (Lawrence 7-21). The snake, “trailed his yellow-brown slackness soft-bellied down, over the edge of the stone trough” shows the speakers perception his inner emotion being vulnerable and undesirable in a cold unyielding world (Lawrence 7-21). The “small clearness” in “the water” signifies a moment of mental clarity, or insight in the speaker's mind (Lawrence 7-21). The snake “rested” at the “bottom” “silently”, showing the dormancy of the speaker's emotion (Lawrence 7-21). The snake is repeatedly compared to “cattle”, suggesting that the speaker's inner emotion is comparable to that of an animalistic instinct (Lawrence 7-21). At the end of the second turn the speaker begins to see a beauty in the snake but he still regards it as something dark and evil. The speakers perception of the snake changes from being “yellow-brown”, to being “earth-brown, earth-golden”(Lawrence 7-21). The snake is now not only more beautiful to the speaker but he is more natural. Although the speaker makes this recognition of beauty and naturalness in regards to his inner feeling he condemns it. The snake is beautiful but it still came from the “burning bowls of the earth”, or hell (Lawrence 7-21).
After the second turn, the speaker begins to weigh his feelings about his true inner nature against that of his perceived thoughts of what society finds acceptable. “The voice of my education said to me He must be killed” (Lawrence 22-39). The speaker feels that it is socially unacceptable to entertain such thoughts and he must extinguish them. The speaker perceives that he is not even considered a man in society for allowing this thought to fester, “And the voices said to me, If you were a man You would take a stick and break him now, and finish him off” (Lawrence 22-39). The speaker then begins to reflect on his love for this snake “But I must confess how I liked him” (Lawrence 22-39). The speaker has enjoyed entertaining these thoughts, and begins to question if this feeling really is coming from some dark evil place, “Into the burning bowels of this earth?” (Lawrence 22-39). In the fourth stanza of the third turn, the speaker questions himself again, “Was it cowardice”, “Was it perversity”, or was it okay “Was it humility, to feel so honored? I felt so honored.” (Lawrence 22-39). Just before the fourth turn in the poem, the speaker is afraid of this feeling that is really at his core, it is not acceptable for him to feel this way but at the same time he is falling more in love with the idea. The snake has now come “From out the dark door of the secret earth.”(Lawrence 22-39) rather than from “a fissure”, or “from the burning bowels of the earth” (Lawrence 7-21). The change in words to describe where the snake came from shows the speaker's gradual acceptance that the snake is not really bad at all. The idea of the snake being evil is really only the view of society and not the speaker's true feelings about the subject at all.
After the third turn in the poem the speakers focus returns again to more analysis of the snake or forbidden emotion. “He drank enough”, it is time for the speaker to let go of these thoughts and return to the socially acceptable way of thinking (Lawrence 40-60). The snake “looked around like a god”, and “Proceeded to” “climb again the broken bank of my wall-face.” (Lawrence 40-60). The inner feeling is now perceived as being divine to the speaker, perhaps even being a gift from God. The “broken bank of my wall-face” that the snake must climb is symbolic of the speaker's flaw in his façade (Lawrence 40-60). “A sort of horror, a sort of protest against his withdrawing into that horrid black hole” “Overcame me now”; the speaker is not ready to hide this emotion again and wants to hold on to it (Lawrence 40-60). Rather than holding on to the emotion, the speaker, at the last second feebly attempts to extinguish the emotion all together,” I picked a clumsy log and threw it” (Lawrence 40-60).
After the fifth and final turn in the poem, the speaker is left to reflect on all that has occurred. The speaker is angry with himself for throwing the log and society for influencing him to do so, “And immediately I regretted it” “I despised myself and the voices of my accursed human education” (Lawrence 61-71). When the speaker thinks of the “albatross”, he is comparing the snake or dark secret of his character to that of the albatross in “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Lawrence 61-71). The speaker realizes that his punishment for trying to kill or suppress that unacceptable emotion will be that he must spend the rest of his life never being free from its torment. “Like a king in exile, uncrowned in the underworld, Now due to be crowned again”, the speaker realizes that the snake or inner self is really his true self, hidden away again in the recesses of his mind (Lawrence 61-71). “And so, I missed my chance with one of the lords of life.”, here the speaker realizes that by doing what was socially expected of him that he has missed out on life (Lawrence 61-71). “And I have something to expiate: a pettiness.”, the speaker is left feeling that he must atone for being so close minded (Lawrence 61-71).
Upon facing the snake hiding in the darkness of the mind, the speaker in the poem struggles with what society has told him is acceptable and that which he feels is really a natural and beautiful part of him. It could be argued that D.H. Lawrence was perhaps expressing his own internal struggles with feelings of homosexuality in this poem. The snake, although symbolizing the taboo emotion of the speaker is also a very phallic symbol as well. Regardless of what D.H. Lawrence was really writing about in this poem, his beautiful use of imagery, diction, and symbolism convey to the reader the speaker's very tragic battle of heart and self versus society.