The Psychology of the Serpent in D.H. Lawrence's 'Snake'
Less than 17% of the world's snakes are poisonous and less than half of these are dangerous to man. The risk of death as a result of snakebite is, in fact, lower than the risk of being struck by lightning (Pinney 138). Nonetheless, cross-culturally and throughout the world, the snake is an object of fascination, fear, and respect for humankind. The serpent is a source of symbolic speculation, as it appears in myth, dream, literature, and religion. In nature or otherwise, "it is impossible to approach the creature innocently" (Morgenson 3). As D.H. Lawrence's poem, "Snake", suggests, the snake's invoked power in not a result of any physiological aspect of the snake's chemistry, but rather a consequence of the psychological symbol that defines the snake's being. Like many of Lawrence's nature poems, Barbara Hardy classifies "Snake" as "anthropomorphic", composing the snake as a creature in itself, but "through the images of human experience" (43). Lawrence's serpent is carefully constructed with a sense of immediacy and harsh reality, but it is through the eyes and experience of the human narrator that the reader comes to understand the snake. More importantly, the reader comes to understand the pure necessity, and the pure immorality, of subconscious symbolism and judgement. The snake provokes both terror and respect.
Aside from the reality of a mysterious, occasionally poisonous predator is the archetypal image of the serpent, latent with mythological, biblical, and historical symbols. Among the most common phobias is ophiaphobia, or fear of snakes, despite the unlikeliness of one to encounter a snake in the urban world (Rapoport 195). Lawrence, though does encounter "Snake", and while fear is, without a doubt, entangled in the web of reaction to and regard of the serpent, it is not the only dominant emotion. Intimidation is immediately established from the dawn of the poem, where Lawrence's narrator is "in pajamas for the heat", in the company of a visiting serpent (2). In such casual attire as pajamas, one is left feeling vulnerable and exposed, susceptible to social attack. Lawrence's character is, of course, vulnerable to the snake's venomous predation, but he is also susceptible to society's and human nature's convictions of the slithering snake, which effectively influences the narrator's judgement. Naturally, this intimidation is absurd. It continues throughout the poem while the narrator "like a second-comer" waits, but the snake, throughout the incident, proves to be harmless (15). The true daunting forces of the narrator's sentiments are the "voices of [his] education" (22). While the said voices remain mysterious, foreboding, and unnatural in Lawrence's realm of natural thought and environment, the snake is familiar, and is accredited with figurative familiarity:
He lifted his head from drinking, as cattle do,
He looked at me vaguely as...