(Pugh, C. 1972. The Presence of a Snake1)

1. Snake: D.H. Lawrence 1923

Section
1. Build the Nature-Human Relationship
Chapter
1.9 Poems
Page
1.9.1

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.

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 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 adream,
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
Of life.
And I have something to expiate:
A pettiness.

There are few poems that say so much about our difficult, conflicted relationship with Nature as ‘Snake’. Lawrence, in the stultifying heat and “strange-scented” shade of the carob tree confronts the snake at “his” water trough and his first response, his instinct, is generous. He is entranced: the snake is “earth-brown, earth-golden from the burning bowels of the earth” and later he is described as “like a god’ and ‘like a king”, “one of the lords of life”. Lawrence is honoured to be in his presence, “That he should seek my hospitality” and wants to talk to him. There is much of the Garden of Eden here (see 1.7.1 Paintings), a trance-like harmony of man and beast, a wondrous and mysterious beast, a gift “From out the dark door of the secret earth”.

Sadly, Lawrence’s second response, his learned response, is the mean opposite of the above: like a petulant child he snaps that he “must wait, must stand and wait” while the snake drinks before him. Worse still, he experiences fear, “I was most afraid”, and from his fear he feels the shame of cowardice and the urgings of a corrupted masculinity that he has not acted to oust this competitor: “voices in me said, If you were a man/You would take a stick and break him”.

There is then a tension, a waiting to see which will win out – Lawrence’s instincts or his ‘civilisation’ – and the result seems unsure until, tellingly, the snake begins to withdraw and the spell is broken and there is “A sort of horror, a sort of protest against his withdrawing into that horrid black hole”. There is the cry of the abandoned child here, of being left on one’s miserable own in a corrupted world of one’s own making, and of cowardice, too (“now his back was turned”). Lawrence’s response is to lash out, to hurt, and he picks up a log and flings it at the snake.

Immediately, there is guilt and shame: “I thought how paltry, how vulgar, what a mean act!”. But it is too late, and he, and maybe all of us, have “missed my chance with one of the lords/Of life”. Is this The Fall in the Garden of Eden and can it be undone?

 

1 Pugh, C. 1972. Presence of a Snake. In Pugh, C., Smith, I. 1972. Death of a Wombat. Wren Publishing, Melbourne, Australia.

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