Why Does Representative Poetry Online Bring Up Children in Response to DH Lawrence’s “Snake”?

The lie that postmodernism believes it has uncovered is that there was never anything to lose in the first place. (Armstrong 31)

I’ve been meaning to write about DH Lawrence’s “Snake” for awhile because I really liked the poem. But I didn’t think I had much to say about it because I mostly just like it because the snake sounds like a good, handsome snake, who if I met him I would say something silly like “Hello snake! What a good snake you are! Yes, you are a handsome snake!” I just like animals, and I like stories that recognize their dignity. But Lawrence’s narrator doesn’t quite get along with the snake, so, while liking the poem, I found the narrator’s revulsion and anger about the snake’s retreat into the hole upsetting and kind of frightening to a degree that I can’t really make sense of or explain.

But it strikes me that there is something very odd in the commentary accompanying the poem in Representative Poetry Online. At the end of an interesting commentary expanding on Lawrence’s poetic allusions, the editor adds:

No doubt this poem can also be read erotically, as Lawrence’s vision of a phallic serpent, the demonic seducer of Eve in the garden of Eden, hanging out of and re-entering the body of a firy procreative Earth. Given Lawrence’s extraordinary visions of sex and death, such a reading can no doubt be sustained, although children of all ages, in and out of school, might be forgiven for missing the point, believing that he really did meet a snake one day at the water-trough and wrote about it in the same wide-eyed spirit as he did other living things in his Birds, Beasts and Flowers: Poems (1923).

Erm, why are we talking about children?

Of course I would expect children to fuck up most, if not all, literary readings. If practical criticism, the establishment of English as an academic discipline and criticism as a profession, was intended to produce “mature” readings, then children, by definition, can be forgiven for missing the point. And since children are traditionally barred knowledge of the erotic and the sexual, then naturally they would miss the poem’s erotic potential—at least consciously. I could argue that children still have sexualities and still would be affected on the level of sexuality.

But what’s this “children of all ages, in and out of school” business? Are there non-child-aged children who, reading for innocent pleasure instead of dirty, dirty study, should also be forgiven for ignorance of this huge piece of human experience? What’s so much more innocent about aggressively constructed and imposed ignorance of sexuality, than a simple erotic response? Not to mention: DH Lawrence was a giant kinky perverted violent queer, who struggled continuously with his homosexual desires and often gloried in his misogyny and penis-worship. “Extraordinary visions of sex and death” weren’t just an idle passtime, they were expressions of a lifelong struggle with identity and sexual and romantic practice. So that’s an odd turn in the criticism.

Jolene Armstrong writes about the poem in the course guide (this was my favourite chapter in the course guide, btw, because I felt like it made a lot of my own responses to modern and postmodern literature and criticism a lot clearer). She identifies the moments I found so upsetting as the moment of the narrator’s crisis of faith in the institutions of masculinity and Enlightenment education. Postmodernism, she says, is that jerk standing at the sidelines heckling: What? Don’t tell me you believed that? Loser. Which is still kind of the problem I have with postmodernism. It’s not that I disagree, it’s just that these crises, and the reactions of ‘believers’ to crisis, are really fucking things up. Like Lawrence’s narrator, for example, a lot of men have reacted violently to their crises of masculinity. So it seems like the myth of an ideal, better world, even when I know it’s a myth, could be a really useful thing.

Cited, but not linked

Armstrong, Jolene. “Modernism/Postmodernism: The Dialogues of the Modern Age.” LTST605 Study GuideAthabasca U, 2010. 26-32


This is a reproduction of a post from September 9th 2012 on my blog at https://landing.athabascau.ca/profile/sarahma108

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