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To the Green Snake

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B Borain

on 16 May 2014

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Transcript of To the Green Snake


Consider the line length. What do you notice?
How does a snake move?
Are her thoughts also vacillating from side to side between love and fear?
Could the confusing structure also symbolise that the writer’s thoughts are hard to grasp?
Is there a rhyme scheme?


Snake, when I
hung you round my neck
cold, pulsing
as you
to me, glinting
arrowy gold scales
, and I felt
of you on my shoulders,
and the
whispering silver
of your dryness
at my ears —

Snake —
I swore to my companions
that certainly
you were
! But truly
I had
no certainty
, and no hope, only desiring
to hold you, for that
which left
long wake of pleasure
, as the leaves moved
and you
faded into the pattern
of grass and shadows, and I returned
smiling and haunted
, to a
dark morning

Sibilance has been discussed. What do we call the literary device concerned with sound?
What noise does money make when a croupier flicks a stack of cash?
Glinting arrowy gold scales… the weight of you on my shoulders, and the whispering silver of your dryness – gold and silver support which interpretation?
Money scales? The weight of debt? Jewellery?
Why are these whispers ‘silver’? Which interpretation would a ‘silver-tongued’ snake support?
The snake’s hiss is dry and raspy, like the sound of a dry throat.
What is the ‘long wake of pleasure’?
Could this be like a wake of a ship that sails off? Which interpretation does this support?


Why does she repeatedly call it “Green Snake”? What is the colour green associated with, as opposed to black or red perhaps?
Discuss in your groups:
Does the poet seems sympathetic towards the snake?
Define these words: ‘cold’, ‘pulsing’ and ‘hissed’.
‘Group 1: Validate an interpretation that this is the snake in the Garden of Eden, and remember that the poet is sympathetic towards it. Hint: Tree of Wisdom and also think about the snake staff used by Moses.
Group 2: Validate an interpretation that this poem is about gambling. Hint: The Greenback.
Group 3: Validate an interpretation that this poem represents unbridled passion.


On one level, ‘To the Snake’ vividly describes a “green snake”. Note the use of sibilance or repetition of s sounds to create a powerful description of the hiss of the snake in the poem, in words like “pulsing”, “scales”, “swore”, “smiling” and “grass”.
The poem seems to work on a series of contrasts and a sense of attraction and repulsion. The snake is not draped around the neck but “hung”. The tender word “stroked” is used to describe touching the throat of the snake which is “cold” suggesting a lack of emotion and life but the snake is also “pulsing” which clearly gives the idea of warmth and life. She assures her friends that the snake is harmless but even she is not convinced that she will not be harmed. She moves into a dark morning “smiling” but also “haunted”
Consider the use of symbolism in the poem. The American dollar is sometimes called a “greenback”. Might this be a poem about the seductive power and danger of gambling? What else might be associated with “green”? Shakespeare wrote about jealousy as a “green eyed monster”. The snake of course is strongly associated with temptation in the Garden of Eden.


She worked as a civilian nurse during the Second World War and married an American writer named Mitchell Goodman shortly after the end of the war before moving permanently to America. She would have a son through this marriage. Although she later divorced, she nevertheless became a naturalized citizen and her poetry has been described as being "thoroughly American".
She taught at several American universities and received a Doctorate in Literature from Bates College. Her early work had been relatively formal and in the tradition of neo-Romanticism popular in the 1940s.
From the 1960s onwards Levertov became more politically active and this is reflected in her work. She responded in her poetry to the Vietnam War and explored issues such as feminism, religion and the role of the individual within society.
She died in December 1997 and was buried in Seattle. She was then 74 years of age.

More about the poet

Levertov was educated at home and involved herself in writing from an early age. These writings reveal the pressures of one who felt herself to be "the other", being part of but nevertheless excluded from most identities: both Jew and Christian, German and English, etc.
At the age of five, she was already saying that she would be a writer when she grew up. At 12 she sent some of her poems to the poet T.S. Eliot who gave her some "excellent advice". She was 17 when she published her first poem. Her first book - The Double Image- was published when she was 23.
She was born in Ilford (Essex) in 1923. Her father, a teacher at Leipzig University, had been a Russian Jew who had been held under house arrest as an "alien enemy" during World War I. After the war he and his family moved to England where he converted to Christianity and then became an Anglican priest.


We have looked at the various possible themes. What do you note about the tone?
She seems to admire and fear the snake, like someone might fear sin but be drawn in by it, or gambling, love and even wisdom…

Tone / Theme

Denise Levertov

To the snake

repetition of green - innocence, money,
gambling, jealousy, Garden of Eden
stroked? intimacy
cold - dead
pulsating - alive
hissed - threatening/warning
gold scales - literally snake scales
figuratively - money scales
weight - of money/gold/silver/debt/obsession
silver tongue - sweet talker, note sibilance
close - intimate
seems to need to justify herself re love or gambling
harmless? why is it necessary to specify?
no certainty actually - trying to convince herself too?
joy - of gambling or passion
a long wake of pleasure - wake of a ship as it passes, like love unrequited, or after the passionate encounter/night of gambling
faded into the pattern - what has faded?
The lover or the money from gambling?
smiling and haunted - positive and negative connotations - paradox - happy but sad
dark morning - no light yet it is morning - sense of despair, oxymoron
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