How does Judith Wright convey vivid impressions of a snake in her poem Hunting Snake?
The poem hunting snake has four quatrains and in each quatrain we get a different picture of a snake. The speaker in the poem is part of a group which is headed somewhere for some purpose, but the purpose is not mentioned. Like all of her poems, this poem also demands a holistic approach rather than a stylistic analysis.
The poem has a perfect metre and a rhyme scheme which structurally helps us to keep track of the changes in the thought process. The very first word in the poem is sun-warmed and this tells us that the poet is not living in a tropical countryside. Summer has overstayed and it is still warm. Both the sun and the summer are supportive of life, though both can make us uncomfortable at times. By highlighting the small comforts in the weather, the poet is hinting at the general inconveniences and discomforts that life offers. Not only is the poet happy about the sun warming him, he is also happy about the sky.
under the autumn’s gentlest sky
The group on its way confronts a snake in the grass and it is referred to as ‘the snake’ which makes it a special one.
The great black snake went reeling by.
The words ‘great’ ‘black’ and ‘reeling’ tells us why the poet is scared of it. It paints in our mind a vivid picture of a very scary snake like one we have seen only in dreams. When the poet sees the snake, he stops and freezes. This is an archetypal reaction to snakes. Nowhere in the poem do we come to know that the snake is taking note of the onlookers. Hence this fear is ungrounded or grounded only on memories or irrationality. The poet goes on to say that the snake went on its way unperturbed, minding its own business.
However, in the onlooker’s mind all kinds of questions and associations arise. Most of it is out of fear. Here the poet is highlighting how we are also instinctive like the animals we are scared of. The sight of the snake in the grass makes the poet stop on his track.
and froze half-through a pace
However, the snake was either humble or at least lacked circumspection since it went ahead on its own way with its head bowed and tongue flickering. His movement is referred to by the word ‘quested’ which means the snake was in search of something. It shares the universal quest of every living thing to seek out the meaning of life and living. The sun that warmed the poet is the same sun that is now glazing the diamond shaped scales on its back. It puts us on a same scale as the snake. We are all nourished by the same elements. The onlooker loses his breath seeing this. It must refer to his fear or his awe to see the beauty. Here the poet might be suggesting that whatever is fearsome or beautiful elicit the same reaction from us.
In such a moment of instinctive reactions, the poet loses his sense of compassion. He forgets to look at it keenly or to think of its life.
What track he followed, what small food
fled living from his fierce intent,
we scarcely thought
For him it is something one should be scared of stayed away from. His natural curiosity ends where his fear begins. Had it been a cute mild and meek creature, he would have thought a lot about it to the point of romancing it and glorifying it. But his instinctive fear blinds him to all this.
still as we stood
our eyes went with him as he went.
But as the snake disappears beyond his sight, the poet realizes that it too is a creature like him who is in search of his food. The poet looks at his companion and at the snake too.
We took a deeper breath of day,
Thus the poem describes how a couple of people observe a snake and how the snake moves on with no reaction to the observers, even though the flickering tongue tells us that the snake would have sensed their presence.
Seen from another angle, the poem may have an allegorical meaning. In fact the greatness of Judith Wright’s poems is that they lend themselves to different readings. If we agree with the speaker and consider the snake as an evil entity, the images of Hitler and the like come to our mind. They have behaved just like the snake. People ignored their growth just like the speaker in the poem ignored the existence of the snake until he saw one.
Even in the Bible, snake is Satan’s accomplice in sinning against God. Reptiles, science says, have kept the mammals in fear for centuries. Even today, snakes are the main characters in common nightmares. All this shows that snake is the archetypal symbol of evil. No one is bothered about the victims of evil. We are scared of them and we try to protect only ourselves. As generations and generations inherit evil, we stand by and observe and do not react.