This poem is an appreciation of the brilliance of nature and the natural world. A person is walking through the countryside and freezes when they see a snake. There is a sense of dread about the inherent danger of a snake, but the walker is also struck by its beauty and is torn between this idea of threat and the nobility and splendour of the creature.
Sun-warmed in this late season’s grace
under the autumn’s gentlest sky
we walked, and froze half-through a pace.
The great black snake went reeling by.
Head-down, tongue flickering on the trail
he quested through the parting grass;
sun glazed his curves of diamond scale,
and we lost breath to watch him pass.
What track he followed, what small food
fled living from his fierce intent,
we scarcely thought; still as we stood
our eyes went with him as he went.
Cold, dark and splendid he was gone
into the grass that hid his prey.
We took a deeper breath of day,
looked at each other, and went on.
Judith Wright (1915-2000)
Click through the tabs below to explore my analysis of different aspects of the poem.
Judith Wright was an Australian poet, but she also dabbled in environmentalism and her work became famous because of the way she explored the relationship between mankind and the natural world. She wrote this poem in 1955.
This isn’t massively relevant, but it does suggest that when she was writing this poem she would want to glorify nature and helps us understand that the main feeling she has towards this snake is one of awe and wonder.
The beauty and perfection of nature with a clear appreciation for the beauty of nature even if this extremely dangerous form.
Well, not a lot actually happens in this poem; you could sum it up as: people walking see a snake and get scared, but also admire it. The key is in the language.
We start with a beautiful natural setting. For those of you living in non-seasonal places, autumn is the season where everything is just right: not too hot, not too cold. So, it’s just perfect outside for a walk through the countryside as it is ‘sun-warmed’ and they under the ‘gentlest sky’, sounding nice and cosy. However, their contentment is shattered as they freeze at the sight of a snake, which is a natural reaction as most people are afraid of them, particularly if they are described as ‘great black’, words that conjure an image of imposing size and associate it with danger.
However, their fear very quickly seems to pass into admiration. Notice how the snake is described in the second stanza as he goes about his business moving through the grass. He ‘quested’ rather than slithered or wriggled (in the first stanza he ‘reeled’ like thread, which is also less threatening), which suggests a certain nobility to his purpose, and, not only that, but ‘sun-glazed’ his ‘diamond scale’ make me think of shiny armour, but certainly at least suggests beauty. The image causes our protagonists to hold their breath, which has a dual association with fear (not wanting the dangerous creature to notice them) and awe (breath taken away by the beauty of the beast).
The third stanza reminds us of the danger. The poetic voice wonders about the snakes destination and thinks of its prey that has ‘fled’ from ‘his fierce intent’. Both flee and fierce are associated with attacking and the snake is still rightly regarded with caution, which is why their eyes don’t leave him and watch him carefully as he disappears into the undergrowth. However, this idea of being transfixed upon the snake could again be associated with awe as well as fear, as they are almost mesmerised by the sight.
The final stanza sees the snake disappear. Again we have duality of feeling as he is described as ‘cold, dark’, which again link to danger, and then as ‘splendid’, linking to the idea of awe. The walkers look at each other and take a breath, which I think indicates they are both very much aware of the rarity of what they’ve just seen and express a silent appreciation to each other, as well as potentially a bit of relief.
Language and techniques
I’ve already mentioned a lot of it, but let’s run over the main ideas.
We’ve got an almost oxymoronic situation with the way they describe the snake. Words like ‘great black’, ‘fled’, ‘prey’, ‘hunting’ (from the title) and ‘fierce intent’ make the snake seem dangerous and something to be cautious, if not scared, of. However, the same animal is described as ‘splendid’, having ‘diamond scale’, being ‘sun-glazed’, which make it sound beautiful or resplendent, even the choice of verbs used to describe the snake’s movement are sometimes gentle and refined – ‘flickering’ and ‘parting’.
These dual concepts of the snake are added to by the reaction of the walkers. They ‘froze’ suggesting terror, but the fact they ‘lost breath’, their ‘eyes went with him’ and they share a significant look at the end of the poem, make me see them as appreciating the majesty of this animal alongside being wary of his threat. Also consider the fact that the poet chooses to call the snake ‘he’ rather than ‘it’. Personifying the snake in this way is a sign of respect, it is not just a thing, but is worthy of comparison with a human.
Another thing to consider here is the overall language of the poem; this links to the tone, but is important in our understanding of the walkers attitude towards this scene. Most of the word choices are very simple and gentle (no sharp sounding words) and fit into the idea of a calm and pleasant autumnal day. There is no harsh punctuation and the rhyming words are all gentle one or two syllable words and the pace is regular and gentle as well. This simplicity corresponds with the simplicity of what we are appreciating: nature in its natural setting.
Think about how you’d react if you’d just been confronted by a tiger – you probably wouldn’t be calm and gentle with your language, but would be swearing and screaming at the top of your lungs while trying to flee. That’s not how we feel about this snake.
I’ve dipped into this above, sorry. I mentioned it’s quite gently paced, but how do you talk about that? Well, mention the regularity of the stanzas – 4 stanzas of 4 lines following an ABAB rhyme scheme (until the last stanza), all the lines have between 8-10 syllables so are a similar length – which suggests that the poet’s ideas are being expressed calmly with order rather than with any great commotion. Also, the fact there is a consistent rhyme also indicates a calm attitude and the rhyming words at the end of each line are always simple and easy rhymes, which makes the whole poem seem gentle.
Really calm and gentle. Everything from the setting for the scene, the language choice, regularity of structure and the quiet appreciation of the potentially dangerous snake suggest the poet is at peace rather than filled with fear or panic.