This is an intriguingly ambivalent portrayal of a snake. Wright manages to convey an impression that the snake is both strikingly important as well as nothing much to worry about.
Devices: In the image of the “sun glazed [on] his curves of diamond scale,” Wright seems to emphasise the snake’s special, regal qualities through her use of the diamond metaphor. The snake glitters mesmerisingly before the speaker’s eyes. She also uses alliterationat several points to dramatise the snake’s authority, such as in the phrase, “food / fled living from his fierce intent”. The alliterative words here fall on strongly stressed syllables which gives a sense of the snake’s power. Wright finishes with a pointedly nonchalant tone as they “took a deeper breath of day, / looked at each other, and went on.”
Word Choices: The snake comes across as an invasive and arresting threat comparable to the famous serpent in the Genesis story in The Bible, especially in the contrast Wright’s words make between the walkers’ calm, warm world and the snake’s active, cold one. The sibilant words in the opening line, “Sun-warmed in this late seasons’ grace”, establishes a relaxed warm mood which the snake penetrates: it “froze” the walkers mid-stride. In addition, the word “Cold” has a heavy effect at the start of the final stanza, which leaves a final impression of the snake’s potent presence. However, unlike the biblical snake, this one ultimately fails to gain dominance over the walkers.
The poet and her companion were walking on a pleasant autumn day when they see a black snake that speeds past, intent on catching its prey. The rest of the poem concentrates on the reactions of the poet and her companion. As they stood still taken aback by the sudden appearance of the snake in the grass, the snake slithers away.
The main subject of the poem is the sudden appearance of the snake and the surprised reactions of the poet and her companion. The snake does no harm to the walkers and they in turn do not harm the snake.
Apart from being a poet, Judith Wright was also an environmentalist who sought to preserve the natural surroundings in Australia. She cared intensely for the Aboriginal people who lived in close intimacy with nature which the settlers did not. The poem is on the face of it about sudden appearance of the snake but it could also be about the various creatures that lived in Australia and the animal friendly way of life of the aboriginal people.
The initial emotion that overtakes the poet and her companion is shock or surprise. They are in no jungle but walking along a grassy patch when they see the snake “reeling by”. Soon this surprise is overtaken by admiration for the perfection of its body, the symmetry of the scales on its surface and the single minded (“fierce intent”) pursuit of its prey.
“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 see him pass.”
Technique / Craftsmanship
The poem has a tightly controlled structure that does not permit much innovation, but the last stanza gives the poet some leeway. The beginning of the poem describes a peaceful scene when nature is full of the mellow sunshine of autumn, then comes the surprise of finding a snake in their midst. But there is no sudden movement or strong emotion expressed so there is no change in the structure either.
The poem has four quatrains with a traditional rhyme scheme of abab, cdcd, efef in the first three stanzas but the fourth stanza is ghhg. The change in the last stanza is like the letting out of breath (“We took a deeper breath of day,”) after having unconsciously held it while the snake was around.
The language used is very simple but the imagery is strong making it a visceral poem. The choice of sibilants (“we scarcely thought; still as we stood”) mimics the movements of the snake.
The use of strong imagery marks the poem. The opening images are of a balmy day in autumn when there is a “mellow fruitfulness” everywhere. The calm is broken by the sudden arrival of the snake. The picture of the snake in single minded pursuit of its prey, tongue darting as it feels the ground, the grass parting as it moves through are pen pictures which allow us to “see” the event. The poem focuses on the event rather than the narrator allowing us to share in the emotions.
Movement / Rhythm
The rhyme scheme is a simple abab, cdcd, efef and ghhg. The rigidity of the scheme allows the poet to focus on the event rather than on the emotions or the feelings of the poet or blank narrator. Movement of the snake is copied in the movement of the lined. The sibilants evoke a slithering sensation.
Alliterative sounds as in “sun glazed his curves of diamond scale”, “we scarcely thought; still as we stood” convey the impression of a slithering movement of the snake as it moved fast over the grass.
Figures of Speech
Through an extended metaphor, the poet tells us of the symbiotic relationship between the snake and man. There is no maudlin talk about the prey or the cruelty of the snake as a hunter but merely an acknowledgement of the sense of purpose behind the movement of the snake.