Man selects only for his own good: Nature only for that of the being which she tends.Charles Darwin, The Origin of species.
D.H. Lawrence’s The Snake is a portrait of human hypocrisy and ‘the morality of cowards’. It embodies the spectrum of sentiments, ranging from that of the cavemen, hunters and gatherers to those of the mariner with a dead albatross or a fruit that should have been forbidden.
The poem is simple. It narrates the poet’s encounter with a snake, a thing of beauty, in hot Sicily. The poem sets the stage, through its rich imagery that invites the reader to the intimacy of the experience. The poet stages his stream of consciousness, embellished with hypocrisy, morality and conscience. The poem thus become a vehicle for catharsis.
The snake, a primordial symbol of fear and fascination embodies dreadful temptation. Its beauty is deadly. Yet there is something elusive about snakes that makes it so alluring. The poet is enchanted by its beauty and for one moment transcends into the post conventional morality grounded in universal ethical principles, as Kohlberg would call it. He imbibes the joy from this living thing of beauty.
Yet his conditional sense of worth pulled him into lower levels of morality. He was tempted to sin. The snake just evoke his own moral weakness. The order was too weak to hold the desire for chaos. That’s when he threw the log at the retreating snake. And soon is struck with guilt and the ensuing defenses. Perhaps, it is one such defense that tempt us to put the blame on the snake for the fruit that we ate.
The poem concludes with a decision to make reparations for a triviality. The poem ends with a cleverly placed “A Pettiness”. Here, the word pettiness obviously refer to his behavior towards the snake. But the last stanza builds up to “a pettiness” upon a personal loss. “A pettiness” might also refer to a triviality of our moral conscience. The poet is guilty. Yet that guilt is not just because he might have offended the snake, but also because he lost him. There is a sense of ownership when he says, “And I wished he would come back, my snake.” The poet’s morality stretches simultaneously through the various stages of morality.
Man is a strange animal constantly indulging in a reckless power struggle, an Adlerian compensation. We are born weak, while calves stand up on their feet, tarantulas feed on their mother, certain tadpoles eat their brothers (when GOT met Freud), turtles find their way home and King cobras find their meal soon after birth. We take pride in the dynamite intellect cased in our fragile forms and set out to dominate. We’d like to think of ourselves as the lords of nature. We are civilized. Yet, every time our animal brain shows up, nature scoffs and smirks at our folly.