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Trail, G.Y. (1979). The Psychological Dynamics of D. H. Lawrence's “Snake”. Am. Imago, 36(4):345-356.

(1979). American Imago, 36(4):345-356

The Psychological Dynamics of D. H. Lawrence's “Snake”

George Y. Trail

“Snake” is D. H. Lawrence's best known poem. It is not only the most anthologized (and hence the most taught) but also the most analyzed. A glance at the poem itself provides some immediate, if only surface, explanations:

The poem has a narrative line. A man, on a hot noon in Italy, comes to fill his water pitcher from a trough and finds a snake there. For an interval, in spite of the “voice” of his education which tells him the snake is dangerous and should be killed, he is fascinated and feels honored by the snake's presence. However, as the snake turns to leave the speaker is overcome with horror and throws a log at it. He immediately regrets the act, curses the voice of his education, and, after comparing the snake to Coleridge's famous albatross, wishes for its return, realizing that he has a “pettiness” to expiate.

Since the “voice” of the poet's “education” is declared “accursed” at the end of the poem, and is detested, it allows us to deprecate authority and celebrate the “natural” response which authority is traditionally seen as stifling. Yet since we have all obeyed, at one time or another, our education to our regret, the poem lets us off the hook by its statement that what we have to expiate is only a “pettiness.”

And finally, since many modern readers will regard snakes as phallic, it gives the reader the thrill of approving the sexual, the “uninhibited,” with no risk attached. Teachers of literature and makers of anthologies can justify including the poem in their respective courses and books as a way to introduce Lawrence, the “prophet of sexuality,” precisely because the sexuality of the poem is symbolic rather than overt. Lawrence, the writer of Lady Chatterly's Lover can here be shown as a poet of high skill and intensely serious moral purpose.


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