Monday, December 21, 2009


Yesterday evening, a Christmas carol service in a small country church, a man's confident voice reading again God's curse on the snake, for tempting Eve:
"Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly thou shalt go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life.
And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed ..."

Snakes generate horror and fascination. Many people kill snakes on sight. Yet most snakes are harmless. Venomous snakes can usually be recognised easily; few are aggressive; first strikes are often a warning, with little or no envenoming; fatal snake bite is rare.
But still our reflexes are to hate, fear and kill snakes; there is something atavistic in us, some dark deep phobia from the dawn of man in Africa. The sexual symbolism is obvious: Freud elucidates.
Snakes have a problem with humans, not with God.

I remember with shame how, as a young teenager, I attacked and killed a grass-snake I found in the marshes near my home. I remember how my stick ripped its skin, and how it struggled to escape, torn and back-broken. I remember the instant regret, and the guilt which is still with me.

It happened that a few weeks later our English master introduced my class to DH Lawrence's poetry. In the library later I discovered his poem "Snake". It spoke truth to me, renewed the guilt, made explicit much that I felt but had not yet understood, but finally gave absolution. I read it again and again.
It was an important incident of enlightenment in my adolescence; the poem moves me still.

SNAKE - by DH Lawrence; Taormina, Sicily, 1923.

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

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, 

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 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.

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