Thom Gunn – Considering the Snail


This poem is an exploration of the hidden forces that govern nature, ‘drenching it with purpose’. The image of a snail battling through undergrowth becomes a representation of the certain manner in which the natural world progresses. The very structure of the poem carries a suggestion of a hidden intelligence or pattern below the surface of things; what initially appears to be free verse turns out on examination to have strict rules governing its form.

The first image we encounter is of the snail passing through a tunnel of grass. Play on light and dark, with the snail’s slime trail described as a ‘bright path’ against the ‘earth’s dark’, gives a powerful visual sense of the snails world – the broken, half-light of thick undergrowth. It also carries the figurative meaning of an intelligence or ‘enlightenment’ entering the darkness where no sentient life exists. We note that the snail itself is not ‘bright’, but rather what it carries – the kind of universal intelligence associated with it that is governing its actions.

The tension in the poem is between a conception of nature as an enormous machine, proceeding according to rules and principles, or as a sentient, creative force with a purpose. The phrase which ends the first stanza, ‘a wood of desire’, catches the eye as a curious way of describing the movements of a snail. The ‘wood’ might show grass-stalks as they’d appear to the snail, in a world where proportions are altered. This in itself says something about the qualities of nature – that things take on a different light when considered from another respect. The word ‘desire’ feels odd whatever it is applied to. It is associated simultaneously with the snail’s movements and his environment, again linking the animal back into a greater natural force, on a hidden, subtextual level. The word denotes in one sense a sophisticated human emotion, implying lust or a concious want. Applied to a snails basic impulse to search for food and a mate, it forces us to consider the difference between the two forms of compulsion – here we reflect upon nature according to basic principles, rather than working towards a consciously defined goal.

This idea might be impressed upon us further by the form of the poem. It follows no standard rhythm, but is set out in strict lines of 7 syllables. The precision of this count, and the fact that it is hidden under the surface until analysed, suggest something automatic and mechanical. We respond to stresses in poetry rather than syllables, therefore we might feel the poem is governed by a force unconscious and unsensitive. However, the form might equally be used to refute this idea. The syllable count, and the ABCABC half-rhyme scheme (again barely noticable at first), might imply that the random movements of nature are organized by an intelligence that has an awareness of symmetry and hence beauty. The fact that these patterns only become apparent after study simply means that this ‘universal intelligence’ operates on a different level to humans – as shown earlier in ‘wood’, all that’s needed is a change of perspective.

We see this ambiguity maintained in the description of the snail. It is personified, a ‘He’ rather than an ‘it’. The ‘antlers’ bring to mind a deer, perhaps reminding us that the snail stands as a metonym for all of nature. Alternatively it could be seen as an ironic description, highlighting the snail’s weakness and insignificance in any greaat universal scheme. This would tie in with the snail’s ‘fury’ and ‘passion’, almost mocking its inability to feel consciously. This reading, however, would ignore the overall tone of the poem, which I feel is meant in sincerity.

‘Fury’ doesn’t fit a snail at first because we imagine it as a fast, violent emotion. However, as discussed, the entire poem is set up for us to reflect on  the difference a change in perspective can bring. Perhaps on the scale at which grass seems like a forest, the snail’s ‘deliberate progress’ does appear as a ‘fury’. ‘Passion’ carries two meanings: developed and powerful emotion, and the ‘animal passions’ which are seen as human weaknesses. Therefore the word encapsulates the poem’s conflict, with a tension between lowly compulsion, and sentient feeling: a conflict which is never completely resolved.

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