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Neil Bowen
Posts: 921

Our new book aims to help students master the tricky art of analysing poetry and, in particular, tackling the unseen. The book is on Amazon now and has already had a positive reception. Here's an extract from the introduction: 

Writing about language

Poems are paintings as well as windows. We look at them as well as through them. As we’ve already said, we have to pay special attention to language in poetry because poetry uses language in a particularly self-conscious way. We can break down the analysis of language into a number of different categories:

• By diction we mean the vocabulary used in a poem. A poem might be composed from the ordinary language of everyday speech or it might use elaborate and elevated phrasing.

• Grammatically a poem may use complex sentences and employ a lot of adjectives, or it may rely extensively on nouns and verbs connected in simple sentences.

• Or poets might mix together different types, conventions and registers of language, moving, for example, between formal and informal, spoken and written, and so forth.

• For almost all poems, imagery is a crucial aspect of language. Broadly imagery is a synonym for description and can be broken down into two types, sensory and figurative. Figurative imagery, in particular, is important. Not all poems rely on metaphors and similes; these devices are only part of a poet’s repertoire, but figurative language is often significant because it compresses multiple meanings into one image. Try writing out the meanings contained in any metaphor in a more concise and economical way. Even simple, everyday metaphors compress meaning in this way. If we want to say our teacher is fierce and powerful and that we fear his or her wrath we can more concisely say our teacher is a dragon.


Writing about patterns of sound and sense

What not to do: It’s tempting to spot sonic features of a poem and list these. Something along the lines of “The poet uses alliteration here and the rhyme scheme is ABAB etc.” Sometimes, indeed, it’s tempting to set out the poem’s whole rhyme scheme. But this sort of identification of features is worth zip, zero marks. As we have emphasised earlier, marks are reserved for attempts to link techniques to meanings and to effects.

Many of us have probably sat in English lessons listening sceptically as our English teacher explains the surprisingly specific significance of some seemingly random bit of alliteration in a poem. Something along the lines “The double d sounds here reinforce a sense of strength” or “the harsh repetition of the ‘t’ sounds suggests anger”. Through all of our minds at some point has probably passed the idea that, in these instances, teachers appear to be using some sort of Enigma-style secret English symbolic decoding machine that reveals how particular patterns of sounds have very specific coded meanings. Or, we think wearily, that our teaachers are just over-reading.

But this sort of thing is not all nonsense. Poems are written for the ear as much as for the eye, to be heard as much as read. A poem is a soundscape as much as it is a set of meanings. Sounds are, however, difficult to tie to specific meanings and effects. We may be able to spot the repeated ‘s’ sounds in a poem, but whether this creates a hissing sound like a snake or the susurrations of the sea will depend on the context in the poem and the ears of the reader. Whether a sound is soft and soothing or harsh and grating is also open to interpretation.

The idea of connecting these sounds to meanings or significance is also a good one, as this is the sort of approach that will earn marks in essays. Your analysis will be more convincing if you use a number of pieces of evidence together. In other words, rather than trying to pick out individual examples of sonic effects, we recommend you explore the weave or pattern of sounds, the effects these generate and their contribution to feelings and idea. Hence the title for this section of the commentaries.

English teachers are, of course, highly trained readers of literature, so they may indeed be alert to subtle nuances of which pupils will be unaware, perhaps. However, a good general rule of thumb is not to repeat analysis you don’t personally find convincing. The same follows, of course, with the commentaries in this book. A poem may be something we look through - a window on another world - it may also be something we look at – like a painting – but it’s also a mirror – through our reading of a poem we see ourselves.


November 20, 2015 at 7:51 AM Flag Quote & Reply

Neil Bowen
Posts: 921

Here's another extract from our new book, this time on the tricky business of metre

Nice to metre...

A brief guide to metre and rhythm in poetry


Why express yourself in poetry? Why read words dressed up and expressed as a poem? What do can you get from poetry that can’t from prose? There are many compelling answers to these questions. Here, though, we’re going to concentrate on one aspect of the unique appeal of poetry – the structure of sound in poetry. Whatever our stage of education, we are all already sophisticated at detecting and using structured sound. Try reading the following sentences without any variation whatsoever in how each sound is emphasised, and they will quickly lose what essential human characteristics they have. The sentences will sound robotic. So, in a sense, we won’t be teaching anything new here. It’s just that in poetry the structure of sound is carefully unusually crafted and created. It becomes a key part of what a poem is.


We will introduce a few new key technical terms along the way, but the ideas are straightfoward. Individual sounds (syllables) are either stressed (emphasised, sounding louder and longer) or unstressed. As well as clustering into words and sentences for meaning, these sounds (syllables) cluster into rhythmic groups or feet, producing the poem’s metre, which is the characteristic way its rhythm works.

In some poems the rhythm is very regular and may even have a name, such as iambic pentameter. At the other extreme a poem may have no discernible regularity at all. As we have said, this is called free verse. It is vital to remember that the sound in a good poem is structured so that it combines effectively with the meanings.


For example, take a look at these two lines from Marvell’s To his Coy Mistress:


‘But at my back I alwaies hear

Times winged Chariot hurrying near:’


Forgetting the rhythms for a moment, Marvell is basically saying at this point ‘Life is short, Time flies, and it’s after us’. Now concentrate on the rhythm of his words.


• In the first line every other syllable is stressed: ‘at’, ‘back’, ‘al’, ‘hear’.

• Each syllable before these is unstressed ‘But’, ‘my’, ‘I’, ‘aies’.

• This is a regular beat or rhythm which we could write

ti TUM / ti TUM / ti TUM / ti TUM , with the / separating the feet. (‘Feet’ is the technical term for metrical units of sound)

• This type of two beat metrical pattern is called iambic, and because there are four feet in the line, it is tetrameter. So this line is in ‘iambic tetrameter’. (Tetra is Greek for four)

• Notice that ‘my’ and ‘I’ being unstressed diminishes the speaker, and we are already prepared for what is at his ‘back’, what he can ‘hear’ to be bigger than him, since these sounds are stressed.

• On the next line, the iambic rhythm is immediately broken off, since the next line hits us with two consecutive stressed syllables straight off: ‘Times’ ‘wing’. Because a pattern had been established, when it suddenly changes the reader feels it, the words feel crammed together more urgently, the beats of the rhythm are closer, some little parcels of time have gone missing.


A physical rhythmic sensation is created of time slipping away, running out. This subtle sensation is enhanced by the stress-unstress-unstress pattern of words that follow, ‘chariot hurrying’ (TUM-ti-ti, TUM-ti-ti). So the hurrying sounds underscore the meaning of the words.

A few tips and pointers:

• Remember that these sort of effects only happen when a poem runs through a human brain and out loud to a human ear.

• Try not to think of a poem as an object, out there, in the world. It’s a composed field of language, more like a piece of software.

• Remember that the marks you see on the page are not themselves the poem, they are the notation for it, like a score is for a piece of music. Your own reading is the performance.

• Always read the poems aloud, try to get a feel for their physical effects. Readers need to be open to them, to have their brains in ‘compatibility mode’. After all, some of these poems were designed to run on ‘English 1598’ software.

• By running them through your brain you are getting direct unbeatable access to the world from which they came.


November 25, 2015 at 3:54 PM Flag Quote & Reply

Neil Bowen
Posts: 921

This blog by Dr Oliver Teale of Loughborough Uni. offers excellent advice on close reading:

December 4, 2015 at 3:39 AM Flag Quote & Reply

Neil Bowen
Posts: 921

This is an extract from The Art of Poetry, vol. 1, the section on Follower, by Seamus Heaney, part 1  

The narrator

As the use of the first person pronoun and the past tense indicates, the narrator appears to be Heaney himself, writing in retrospective voice about an experience from his childhood. Through memory the narrator adopts his own childhood perspective, seeing the world through a child’s innocent eyes to expresses undiluted admiration for his father. But in the final two lines there is a distinct change of perspective and of tone, as the narrator’s critical, experienced adult voice comes more clearly to the fore and has the final say.


As well as the narrator, the poem features the father and the poet himself as a child. The father Fundamentally, the father is presented in a favourable light through a small boy’s hero-worshiping eyes. In particular, the father’s powerful physical presence and his skill in performing a difficult task are emphasised. His size and power is evident from the image of his ‘shoulder globed like a full sail strung’ where the verb ‘globed’ subtly alludes to the myth of the Titan, Atlas, holding up the globe. The sense of impressive size and great strength is reinforced through the simile of the sail, which is ‘full’. The overall effect is of a powerful man taking the strain, muscles working hard, but up to the task. The later description of the father’s ‘broad shadow’ adds to this impression.

Alongside physicality, the father’s technical adeptness is foregrounded:

• He controls the horses seemingly effortlessly, with just his ‘clicking tongue’ and later with just a ‘single pluck’ of the reins. Thus his easy mastery of powerful natural forces is conveyed

• He is also directly and plainly acknowledged as ‘an expert’

• Like a doctor or mechanic, the father ‘fits’ and ‘sets’ the various parts of the plough

• He ‘narrowed/ and angled’ his eye, ‘mapping the furrows’, suggesting the task requires concentration: The father is reading the land intelligently and, as the adverb ‘exactly’ indicates with, reading it with canny precision

• Expertise is also signalled through the neat completion of the work; ‘the sod rolled over without breaking’

However, beneath this admiration there’s a sense of emotional distance between father and son. For example, by being compared to a ‘sail’ and a boat creating a ‘wake’, the father is dehumanised. Little sense of the father’s personality emerges. A stark contrast separates the presentation of the father and that of the son. Indeed, they are almost opposites. The father is a master of this labour, he is in tune with and at home in this agricultural context. Heaney is neither: Through repetition, emphasis is placed on his childhood self’s physical clumsiness: ‘I stumbled’; ‘fell sometimes’; ‘tripping’; ‘falling’. The son also cannot keep up. He is not up to the task, lagging behind his father’s ‘wake’. Worse, he seems to get in the way of the efficient completion of the work. Hence his presence is an irritant, ‘I was a nuisance’. The repetition of three consecutive present continuous verbs ‘tripping, falling, yapping’ convey annoyance and impatience, with the final one, ‘yapping’ connoting a small yapppy dog. Nevertheless, despite his apparent ill-suitedness to the task, the son is keen to emulate his father and follow in his footsteps, ‘I wanted to grow up and plough’.

The relationship between father and son

We’ve already noted the contrast in the presentation of the principal characters in a poem that can easily be imagined as a short piece of drama. Doing so helps us to notice the quietness, the lack of dialogue, in the scene. The father appears almost silent, utterly absorbed in his task; the only noise he makes is not directed at his son, but at the horses. No dialogue and, though both characters are in the scene, only one point at which they touch. Even then, as the father ‘rode’ young Heaney on ‘his back’ to his ‘plod’ he seems more like a beast of burden, a horse or donkey, than as a human. The ‘yapping’ and the reference to the son as a ‘nuisance’ suggests the father’s perception, perhaps picked up on by the child, and, as we’ve noted, implies annoyance.

What is the tone of the reversal at the end of the poem? Does the son sound annoyed now that his father ‘will not go away’? Or is the tone resigned or frustrated? We cannot tell, but we can say that wanting to be rid of his father sounds harsh, as harsh as the labelling of the over keen son as a ‘nuisance’. Heaney could have picked any memory to present his relationship with his father. He chose this one and ended the poem not with an image of tenderness, mutual understanding or togetherness, but with this unresolved harshness. The title Follower suggests religious faith or political belief. People only follow something or someone they strongly believe in, apart perhaps on social media. Hence the title contributes to the impression that when he was young, the son, like most sons, looked up to his father, desperately wanted to be like him, to continue along the same path. Fathers provide role models of masculinity for their sons and hence are crucial to the forming of their son’s personal identity. For most of the poem this identification with the father figure is very strong. As the title suggests, the son defines himself in relation to his father; he is a follower. However, at some point, sons must stop idolising their fathers and begin to see them in a more realistic light. Though the loss of the innocent perspective can be poignant, it can also lead to disillusionment, tension and bitterness. It is, however, an inevitable process we go through as we grow up and struggle to form our own independent identities.

December 20, 2015 at 10:19 AM Flag Quote & Reply

Neil Bowen
Posts: 921

That's ridiculously cheap!

January 11, 2016 at 12:49 PM Flag Quote & Reply

Mikey Meally
Posts: 6

Metre can be a challenging aspect of poetry to understand but when you crack it, it can lead to all types of insights into how the sonic chassis of the poem supports the overall poetic meaning.  Have a look at how Alfred, Lord Tennyson expertly uses changing metre in his famous The Charge of the Light Brigade.

Tennyson’s use of metre is crucial. Not only does he choose to use a rare form, the amphimaceric tetrameter, he plays fast and loose with his opening metre. While sounding like a small yet vital gauge in an airplane cockpit it simply means that Tennyson predominantly uses three syllable combinations that sound like tum-ti-tum. An easy example to remember is the quite familiar British weather forecast: “Heavy rain”. The tetrameter simply means four beats per line. This metre mimics the sound of the thundering, charging horses.

The first stanza reveals Tennyson’s metrical strategy where he flexes the metre throughout to avoid a tedious, relentless rhythm. This strategy of repetition with variation is continued throughout the entire poem to great effect. Here are examples of how he does this:

• The first line: textbook amphimaceric tetrameter. He uses two sets of heavy stresses [in bold] separated by an unstressed syllable:

Half a league, / half a league

• However, the second line loses a syllable where Tennyson gives us an amphimacer followed by a trochee [one stressed syllable followed by an unstressed syllable]. The loss of the stressed syllable gives the line an unsettling, uncertain feeling as we expect the beat that will finish the amphimacer but are denied;

Half a league / on ward

• Then he introduces a completely new variation where he provides two dactyls [a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed syllables].

All in the / vall ey of / Death

So not only have we a new rhythm but it is dramatically disrupted by the booming masculine rhyme of DEATH. The heavy stress and capitalization of “Death” increases the danger Tennyson wants us to be all too aware of.

• The next line is different again and is a combination of the aforementioned dactyls and amphicamers:

For ward the / Light Bri gade!”

Here there is an unusual unpredictability to the metre; it is falling away only to recover spectacularly in an amped up sonic overload. This pattern is repeated with:

Charge for the / guns!” he said.

The loss of the stressed syllables after the triumphant opening suggests a loss of momentum, almost like a stumble in the charge itself, or even a loss of certainty or bravery. Whatever it mimics it certainly introduces a note of uncertainty when the reality of military engagement is introduced. Our reading experience becomes as unpredictable as the military engagement we are reading about – not an easy strategy to pull off in a long poem like this.


January 15, 2016 at 11:48 AM Flag Quote & Reply

Mikey Meally
Posts: 6

Sound Patterns in Thomas Hardy's The Darkling Thrush

The vital importance of language sounds is what distinguishes poetry from all other literary forms, which is not to day that prose or drama writers cannot construct beautiful sound patterns through their language choices.  However, it is more overtly employed, and hence expected, in poetry.

The most obvious place that sound patterning can be sensed is in the rhyme scheme of a poem.  In The Darkling Thrush, Hardy writes in strong masucline cross rhymes.  Nearly all the rhymes (all bar two) are full rhymes. This full rhyming breaks down briefly but significantly around the same point in the poem where the iambic metre starts to stubmle noticeably: the point where the thrush dramatically enters the poem.

‘Overhead’ and ‘illimited,’ and also ‘small’ and ‘soul,’ sound off each other, but don’t chime like a full rhyme does. The latter pair are an example of a particular sort of half-rhyme called consonantal rhyme. In this type of rhyme the outer consonants stay the same, in this case the ‘s’ and ‘l’, but the inner letters change. This seems a significant choice at this point of change in the poem.


The break in the full rhyme pattern flags up that as the bird launches into its song, the narrator describing it is uncertain about this change. His sensitive faculties are open to what’s happening, but it takes some time, a few lines, before the birdsong has effected a change in perspective within him.


It is an idea attributed to Pythagoras that music stands in some special relationship to the Universe. Although the music of the thrush first appears halfway through the poem, Hardy has laid the groundwork for this from the beginning. For example, look at the proliferation of words with musical connections in the poem: ‘scored’, ‘strings’, ‘lyres’, ‘lament’, ‘voice’, ‘evensong’, ‘carolings’, ‘ecstatic sound’.


Hardy’s skill with sound patterns is exquisitely realised in this poem. As would be expected in a poem labouring under the weight of history’s corpse, dragging it into the future, the poem is full of broad mournful vowels. Look at the first two lines to see the sluggish broad vowels of :

“I leant upon a coppice gate / When Frost was spectre-grey.”

Added to these broad vowels, Hardy uses an interesting combination of soft sibilance and harsh fricatives (“c” and “k” sounds) to mimic the bleakness of the landscape:

“The tangled bine-stems scored the sky / Like strings of broken lyres.”

It introduces a desolate, whistling quality perforated by sharp, puncturing sounds. The sharpness of “broken” emphasises the brokenness of the lyre, rather than the strings of the lyre.

This use of sharp fricative patterns can also be seen in the second stanza: see the harsh patterns of: “The Century’s corpse outleant, / His crypt the cloudy canopy”, which is further aggravated by the plosive energy of the “p” sounds. Overall, Hardy’s sound patterns create a harsh desolate world, full of threat.


The strategy of using broad vowels to contribute to the heavy tone of the poem continues until the introduction of the thrush in the third stanza, where the function of the broad vowels changes from harbingers of gloom to signifying the little bird’s gallant intaking of breath. At the start of the third stanza the broad vowels are associated with the bird whereas the narrow vowels are associated with the emaciated winter landscape it sings in: “At once a voice arose among / The bleak twigs overhead / In a full hearted evensong.”

See how the weight of the broad vowels start to outweigh the brittle vowels building up to the unleashing of its tiny, powerful song. The crucial line 19, where the poem’s rhyme and metre begins to distort, almost like waking from a trace, mimics the actual song of the thrush itself. If you don’t believe me look online for any recording of a thrush's song. Hardy’s strange choice of the word “illimited” allows a line with an introductory two broad vowels to be followed by a rapid, staccato series of four very narrow vowels. It is not an accident; the more normal word choice would be “unlimited” but it doesn’t have the same sonic power at all and prevents an approximation of an actual thrush’s song. The rapid repetition of these “i” sounds not only mimics the thrush’s actual song but also the type of energy that the speaker seems to lack in his dealing with reality.


However, Hardy is no idealist and he reverts back to surrounding this outburst in the poem with more ominous soundscapes. Look at the ominous sound pattern of “the growing gloom” with its dull, alliterative “g”s and the increasingly long “o” sounds. This battle with a pessimistic future is not over, not by a long shot.

However, the little thrush has kickstarted something. Look at the crackling energy of the fricatives and sibilance that dominates the start of the fourth stanza: “So little cause for carolings / Of such ecstatic sound.” It is not a coincidence that as the speaker begins to respond to what he has just experienced.  Consequently, the end of the poem begins to bring forward a proliferation of “t”s, “h”s and “th”s; they are more soothing, softer in texture and more hopeful than the bleak sounds that dominate the main body of the poem.


January 25, 2016 at 12:37 PM Flag Quote & Reply

Mikey Meally
Posts: 6

Imagery and Symbolism in D.H. Lawrence's Snake

Lawrence's long free verse poem is interesting on many levels but none more so than its unusual rumination on the centreal visual: the snake itself. 

Lawrence provides cascading layers of visual imagery that give this poem a unique intensity of effect. Suited to the blazing, shimmering heat of Sicily in high summer the poem unfolds with almost dream-like power. Lawrence works in oppositional patterns. Where there is “a hot, hot day” there is the coolness and “small clearness” of the water. The “pacified” snake “seeming to lick his lips” gets what he came for while the narrator “must wait, must stand and wait” for his satisfaction. As alluded to previously, the strident voices of society stand in stark contrast to the lone silence of the snake. The dignity of the snake who indulges necessary appetites, taking what he needs rather than what he wants, makes the “undignified” behavior of the narrator seem all the more pitiful.

The poem is a very visual one and the main oppositional visual imagery is the old reliable: light and dark. However, Lawrence plays with this familiar colour code. The poem begins by contrasting the tremendous heat of the sun with the “deep. Strange-scented shade of the great dark carob-tree”, which makes the dark shade a sort of refuge from the unbearable “hot, hot day”. Furthermore, whereas black is usually associated with menacing evil, here “the black, black snakes are innocent”. Instead, our star snake is bedecked suitably in gold, which we are told is “venomous”. This could be a sly dig at the danger of materialism, a moral that would not have been unsuited to the Jazz Age materialism of the 1920s. However, the golden colour is not that of metals, not that constructed by humans but rather a natural gold. Lawrence describes the snake as “yellow-brown” then as “earth brown, earth-golden”, the first of a series of echoing descriptions that dominate the poem. This association of the snake’s colour as a form of natural preciousness is reinforced by its description later in the poem as a “king in exile” and as “one of the lords of life …now due to be crowned again”.

This binary colour system is developed further in the poem, where the lordly snake is made to inhabit “the burning bowels of this earth”. So despite its lightness of colour it inhabits dark places; it is a curious combination. Additionally, it is the departure of the snake “into that horrid black hole. / Deliberately going into the blackness” that triggers some sort of irrational response in the narrator. Gone is the respect and awe, instead spills forth an ugly desire to destroy to regain power over the snake. The fact that nature can provide such sources of horror and admiration makes nature a complex entity that does not bow to human expectations. It also illustrates the great spectrum of response that nature can stimulate: from awe to horror. Why horror is the appropriate reaction is open to debate. The horror seems to emanate from a lack of knowledge and an inability to understand, which almost inspires a powerlessness in the narrator. Faced with the wildness of nature, the smug assumed superiority of humanity gives way to fear and anxiety.

Lawrence also excels in capturing the sensual movement of the snake through his imagery. Just looking at the third stanza, see how the snake “trailed his yellow-brown slackness soft-bellied down, over the edge of / the stone trough”. The verb “trailed” conjures up the slowness of movement, while the “slack long body” captures both the length and the apparent formlessness of the snake. “The “soft-bellied” description also portrays the supple, fluid movement of the snake.

The imagery used to personify the snake is also interesting. The snake is compared to “drinking cattle”; “a god”; “a king”; “a lord”. Furthermore, the snake “mused a moment”, lifts his head “dreamily … as if thrice adream” and seems “to lick his lips”. Lawrence endows him with peculiar human attributes. It is his casualness, his unhurriedness, almost his confidence that Lawrence draws attention to. It might seem odd to put it this way but the narrator almost seems jealous of the snake’s natural place in the landscape. Again, it contrasts strongly with how out of place the narrator appears to be both in Sicily and in society itself. The use of “god”, “king” and “lord” reinforces this; the snake is supremely confident almost commanding in its surroundings.  The snake's domination of the imagery system of the poem transforms it from mere visual image into multi-layered symbol.

However, we must ask why this admirable creature earns such a “vulgar … mean act” as a reward. What is this about? Fortunately it’s Freud time! The snake is obviously phallic and can certainly symbolise the male member; it is after all quite deliberately personified as male not female.  It’s no coincidence that the “sort of horror” begins with the snake “snake-easing its shoulders … into that horrid black hole”. Those of you with GCSE Biology behind you can quickly recognize the female harbour the male ship tends to navigate. The description of an “earth-lipped fissure” reinforces this also. So does the snake remind the narrator of sex and if so why is he so horrified? Maybe the narrator is gay and is horrified by female genitalia and any related thoughts of heterosexual sex; this might reveal his admiration of the snake as more like admiration of a confident, open heterosexuality. It might also explain how the snake is seen as more natural. Maybe he has just led a sheltered life! However, the “horrid black hole” could be imaginatively enlarged to encapsulate an anal space too, which would arrive at a more universal horror at all types of sexual desire, homo or hetero. The sex act itself then seems to be a highly taboo subject for the narrator; something that is both desired and admired but sickening too. It is not the thought of sex but really the actuality of penetration that seems to horrify.

Following the Freudian path, the snake then represents the id, the primal desires located in the unconscious part of the mind. This makes sense as the arrival of the snake into the narrator’s world appears to be transgressive, an intrusion that is exciting but troubling. Desire is an appetite, the instinctive part of us; the wild more animalistic side of us. Freud understood the conscious part of our minds to be what tries to repress or control such appetites. The intrusion of the animalistic desire into the conscious is a failure of repression. Thus the snake represents those desires that are dangerous or “venomous” and the horror that arrives after the desire has been satisfied [think of the snake “seeming to lick his lips”]. When the snake darts back to the “burning bowels of the earth”, this can be seen as the primal desire returning to dark, unknown part of the mind. This is further reinforced by the narrator’s belief that the snake has come “From out the dark door of the secret earth”. The use of “dreamily” and “adream” connects to the unconscious part of the mind as Freud believed that only in dreams could the unconscious be accessed. The fact that the narrator takes possession of the snake [“a snake” becomes “my snake”] means that this dangerous desire is uniquely his. The fact that the desire embodied by the snake kickstarts such social uproar, as represented in the various “voices”, tells us that this desire is socially unacceptable. The conscience, or superego in Freudspeak, is socially constructed so the narrator’s desire must be perceived as deviant in some way. Maybe he is gay after all...

There is another possibility that possibly would resonate more strongly in 1923 than it would in 2012. Put a “great dark carob-tree”, “a snake”, “a god” and a vulnerable young man into a poem shaped cooking bowl, mix well, leave to bake on “a hot, hot day” and what do you get? One hell of a biblical allusion! The poem can be clearly read in a religious way. In the original we find the serpent, which was a source of evil. Here we find a snake that is clearly not evil but is stained by cultural prejudice as a symbol; hence why the narrator feels compelled to hurl his “clumsy log”. The snake resides in “the burning bowels of this earth”, which can easily be understood as a reference to hell. However, where is God? What good is our knowledge when there is so much “deep, strange-scented shade”? Turns out that it is the serpent that is “like a god”. The “like” is crucial as now that there is no God, we must find substitutes. Like a god, the snake is mysterious, unknowable, awe-inspiring but ultimately just a reptile. Even more frustratingly, the familiar symbolism of old is no longer reliable: the snake represents both good and evil, resulting in an ambiguity that is horrifying and frustrating.

In keeping with Modernism’s lament for the passing of traditional belief systems and grappling with a world without god, Lawrence’s poem can be seen as an updated, Modernist creation myth. The stark truth is that humans coexist with nature and despite our epic curiosity there are certain things we cannot understand, even though we can control them. The snake could also represent a time when humans were not self-conscious beings but merely instinctive; life would have to be easier, no existential angst to torture yourself with. The withdrawal of the snake into the darkness of ignorance is obviously to be coveted if life’s big questions plague you as a sensitive artist. No wonder he threw a log at the snake!

There is another religious angle that can provide interesting scope for discussion: the story of Christ. It might seem far-fetched but the snake in this case could represent Christ. After all, he is “one of the lords of life”. The treatment of the snake is what resonates with the story of Christ. If we look at the penultimate stanza, the snake is “like a king in exile, uncrowned in the underworld, / Now due to be crowned again”, which very much sounds like the Second Coming. However, why Christ/Snake would return to being beaten with “clumsy logs” remains to be seen. The voices echo the crowd that Pontius Pilate had to placate with a “pettiness” called justice. There is even a biblical sound to the words the voices utter: “If you were a man / You would take a stick and break him now”. Rather than feel “humility, to feel so honoured” the Jews chose to act with “cowardice” and “perversity”. Consequently, the “convulsed … undignified haste” by which the snake must depart represents the degrading process of death suffered by Christ, with the “horrid black hole” a symbol of the tomb his body was laid in. But why did the crowd act with such brutality? Again, the narrator’s “sort of horror” reveals this. The snake threatens the illusion of human superiority and reminds the narrator that such superiority is self-proclaimed and built on shifting foundations. Christ threatened to destabilize the old familiar power structures with his contrary teachings of tolerance rather than the ‘eye-for-an-eye’ doctrine of the Old Testament. The darkness that horrifies the narrator seems to be a type of knowledge that is inaccessible to humans; most likely knowledge of the afterlife and of the great divine unknowable, God. The guilt that humanity should feel after sacrificing such an innocent should logically lead to the type of self-loathing described by the narrator. Lawrence uses another nifty allusion, this time literary, to Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” to remind us that our wrongdoings should haunt us until we learn our lessons. The alternative, of course, is not to worry about it at all and continue behaving irresponsibly, as History teaches us.


March 6, 2016 at 9:42 AM Flag Quote & Reply

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