Snake is one of Lawrence's most famous poems. In the poetry collection Birds, Beasts and Flowers, he gives brief category introductions. Under "Reptiles" he writes:
Homer was wrong in saying, 'Would that strife might pass away from among gods and men!' He did not see that he was praying for the destruction of the universe; for, if his prayer were heard, all things would pass away--for in the tension of opposites all things have their being--
(p. 348/Complete Poems/Penguin, 1993)
Lawrence is set in opposition to the snake in the above poem. They are having a face-off at the water-trough. There is also tension represented in Lawrence's divided feelings about the snake. He is both honored by the snake's presence and horrified. Even his actions are dialectic. He humbly waits for the snake to finish its drink and then aggressively throws a log at it in disrespect.
The snake, itself, is the ultimate symbol of the "tension of opposites," (soul and libido, male and female, coiling and uncoiling). It is, on the one hand, a king of the underworld and a lord of life. Snakes are a symbol of Mother Earth's female power, enlightenment, and wisdom. They're associated with the mysteries of life, hence the snake in medical insignias (Caduceus). And yet it's also a "golden" venomous snake, an evil thing, a serpent in the Garden of Eden. As such it plays a part in the seduction of man with the apple of knowledge and self-awareness. Thus Lawrence's epiphany regarding his paltry, vulgar, and mean act demonstrates a further falling away from God through self analysis. His Garden has been both honored and violated by the snake.
A snake sheds its skin and is reborn anew, just as Lawrence has shed his formal dress and confronts the snake in his pajamas. If only they could have held onto that "undressed or naked" wonder of two creatures meeting. But, alas, education and social conventions overruled--poisonous snakes must be killed and brave men should undertake the task. For the briefest moment Lawrence lacked the faith of his own intuition, and thus missed his chance "with one of the lords/Of Life."
Through this poem, Lawrence has illustrated his point about strife and the clash of opposites. The snake slithering away, "convulsed in undignified haste," and Lawrence standing in pajamas, rather ridiculous, with his empty water jug in hand--they both "have their being" and are made very real for us. The snake is first on the scene and the first to leave--regal and lordly throughout. Lawrence wonders why "petty" mankind always tries to rob the dignity from all Godly creatures.
As Lawrence concludes in his essay, "The Reality of Peace":
If there is a serpent of secret and shameful desire in my soul, let me not beat it out of my consciousness with sticks. It will lie beyond, in the marsh of the so-called subconsciousness, where I cannot follow it with my sticks. Let me bring it to the fire to see what it is. For a serpent is a thing created. It has its own raison d'etre. In its own being it has beauty and reality. Even my horror is a tribute to its reality. And I must admit the genuineness of my horror, accept it, and not exclude it from my understanding. . . . There is a natural marsh in my belly, and there the snake is naturally at home. Shall he not crawl into my consciousness? Shall I kill him with sticks the moment he lifts his flattened head on my sight? Shall I kill him or pluck out the eye which sees him? None the less, he will swarm within the marsh. Then let the serpent of living corruption take his place among us honourably. . . . For the Lord is the lord of all things, not of some only. And everything shall in its proportion drink its own draught of life.
(p. 235/_DHL: Life into Art_ by Keith Sagar/University of Georgia Press, Athens, 1985)