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45 LAWRENCE'S "SNAKE" NOT "SWEET GEORGIAN BROWN" By Leslie B. Mittleman (California State College, Long Beach) Professor Brennan, in dismissing D. H. Lawrence's "Snake" in his review of Robert Ross's THE GEORGIAN REVOLT ["Sweet Georgian Brown," ELT, VIII: 5 (1965), 269-71], is mistaken when he states that "greatness is missing" (p. 270). "Snake" is not typically Georgian, and it is not "essentially sentimental . . . more sweet Georgian down." Instead, it is an exceedingly complex poem, more closely related in technique to the work of the French Symbolist poets than to that of any of Lawrence's contemporaries , excepting the Mal larme"-influenced Yeats. The "fable" in "Snake" offers no problem; interpreting the fable is quite another matter. A speaker (one is tempted to say Lawrence) is surprised at a watertrough by a snake which precedes him. The snake drinks deliberately, slowly. The speaker, "like a second comer," waits, seemingly without the will to act: "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" [11. 22-4, D. H. Lawrence, SELECTED POEMS (NY: New Directions, 1947), pp. 95-98; all references and quotations are from this edition of Lawrence's poems]. Yet the speaker does nothing, in spite of the fact that the snake, "yellow-brown," is presumably venomous. Instead, Hamlet-like, he reproaches himself: "And voices in me said, If you were a man / You would take a stick and break him now, and finish him off" (11. 25-6). But he does not respond either to the voice of his education or the prompting of his manhood. Without explaining his reasons, he confesses that he "liked" the snake which "had come 1 ike a guest." Confused by his own reactions, the speaker tries to analyze his motives: "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" (11. 31~4). Suddenly, as the snake begins to withdraw into a hole on the wall face, the speaker is convulsed into violent action: "And as he put his head into that dreadful hole, / And as he slowly drew up, anake-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" (11. 50-4). The speaker picks up a log and throws it after the snake, which disappears "Into the black hole, the earth-lipped fissure in the wall front"; immediately the speaker regrets what he has done. "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" (11. 64-7). The speaker's reactions to the snake—his peculiar early diffidence followed by sudden uncontrollable rage—cannot be explained, certainly not by the speaker himself, on the level of reasonable, conscious behavior. To Brennan, the poem fails because the behavior diffuses a "late Edwardian smugness: the speaker ascribes his stick-hurling to the fault of his parents, yet conceives it, 0_ fel?x culpa, as a pettiness for him to expiate." If the action is to be judged according to reasonable behavior, Brennan is correct. Then the poem is silly. 46 "With the well a public one and the snake clearly a poisonous one, the reflex [the speaker] would extirpate would seem a healthy one," Brennan remarks. But the point I wish to make is that the snake is not simply a snake--not to Lawrence. What horrifies the speaker and prompts his violent reaction is viewing a symbolic representation of the sexual act. Then he is shamed. He thinks of the albatross because he believes that the Ancient Mariner's guilt is similar to his own. We do not know why the Mariner shot the albatross; the speaker does not know for certain why he threw the stick at the snake. He blames his prudery, his...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1559-2715
Print ISSN
0013-8339
Pages
pp. 45-46
Launched on MUSE
2010-05-21
Open Access
No
Archive Status
Will Be Archived 2021
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