Thursday 12 October 2017

The late Jeremy and Other Snails

News of the demise of Jeremy the lefty love triangle snail got me thinking about snails in general. Though they're a plague and a bane in the garden, I've always had a soft spot for them, and have fond memories of my daughter, when very young, entertaining herself with (surprisingly pacey) snail races.
 Thom Gunn's fine poem, Considering the Snail, I have posted before. Here, for a very different take on the subject, is Marianne Moore's To a Snail

If “compression is the first grace of style,”
you have it. Contractility is a virtue
as modesty is a virtue.
It is not the acquisition of any one thing
that is able to adorn,
or the incidental quality that occurs
as a concomitant of something well said,
that we value in style,
but the principle that is hid:
in the absence of feet, “a method of conclusions”;
“a knowledge of principles,”
in the curious phenomenon of your occipital horn.
Author’s Notes:“Compression is the first grace of style”: Democritus.
“Method of conclusions”; “knowledge of principles”: Duns Scotus.
The citations in the Author's Notes are not very accurate, but let's not get pedantic. What fascinates Moore is the snail's 'contractility', as exemplified by its 'occipital horn'. A century and more earlier, Keats, reading Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis, was similarly enchanted by the snail's 'tender horns', as he writes in a letter (from Box Hill) to John Hamilton Reynolds –

'He [Shakespeare] has left nothing to say about nothing or anything: for look at Snails, you know what he says about Snails, you know where he talks about "cockled Snails"--well, in one of these sonnets, he says--the chap slips into--no! I lie! this is in the Venus and Adonis:1 the Simile brought it to my Mind. 

Audi-- As the snail, whose tender horns being hit,
Shrinks back into his shelly cave with pain
And there all smothered up in shade doth sit,
Long after fearing to put forth again:
So at his bloody view her eyes are fled,
Into the deep dark Cabins of her head.'

If Keats identifies with the snail's contractile sensitivity, William Cowper, considering the snail, also admires its self-contained, 'hermit-like' life, the creature's complete identity with its home perhaps reflecting something of Cowper's desperate need for home, for a safe place that offered him enough stability and security to be able to engage with the world – and retreat from it –

'To grass, or leaf, or fruit, or wall,
The snail sticks close, nor fears to fall,
As if he grew there, house and all

Within that house secure he hides,
When danger imminent betides
Of storm, or other harm besides
                                                Of weather.

Give but his horns the slightest touch,
His self-collecting power is such,
He shrinks into his house, with much

Where’er he dwells, he dwells alone,
Except himself has chattels none,
Well satisfied to be his own
                                                Whole treasure.

Thus, hermit-like, his life he leads,
Nor partner of his banquet needs,
And if he meets one, only feeds
                                                The faster.

Who seeks him must be worse than blind,
(He and his house are so combin’d)
If, finding it, he fails to find 
Its master.' 


  1. Wonderful. Read this perfect evocation of snails during my struggles with Geoffrey Hill.

    "..................Under the half-dead
    wistaria, crudely cut back, the stone
    lintel, newly snail-cobbled, glitters
    with their mucilage............."

    'Speech! Speech!' Stanza 115

    You feel sticky after reading it. A propos of nothing, I visited St Peter's, Titchfield near my home yesterday. Saw the double-decker triple Wriothesly tomb by Gerard Johnson which is magnificent and features a kneeling Henry Wriothesly, Shakespeare's patron, on the side. On the adjacent wall was a tiny monument to Henry's daughter, Mary who died in 1615 aged 4 years and 4 months by Epiphanies Evesham. I was taken by the tiny shoes. I realise that it is extremely unlikely that you have not already visited St Peter's or are unaware of this Evesham but just in case...... Apparently there is also a sculpture of Sir Thomas Cornwallis by Nicholas Stone at St Mary's Portchester inside the castle walls. Have been unable to gain access here so far.

  2. I found three or four on my kitchen ceiling. Just puzzled about how they got there. Seemed to be getting some shuteye, so I was happy to leave them. Hear tell they not so good for dogs.

  3. Snails can get anywhere Newman - they seem to have mysterious powers...
    Guy - thanks for the quote - the kind of thing that makes reading Hill worth the effort. Titchfield is on my list, so I should be going there some time soonish. The Johnson work is brilliant, but I don't think the other one is by Evesham - it just doesn't have that special something (and if it was made in the year of Mary W's death, Evesham was almost certainly working in France). There are a lot of more or less fanciful attributions to Evesham dotted about the country. In my eagerly awaited (hem hem) book, I write about just six or seven monuments which I'm sure are 'right', though half of them aren't signed. Thanks for the Titchfield reminder anyway.

  4. My 'authority' on the Evesham attribution was Simon Jenkins but happy to accept your correction. Managed to get into St Mary's Portchester yesterday. Lovely Norman church. Saw the N. Stone sculpture. Set in the back wall of the chancel, which faces the nearby sea shore, in mysterious shadow.