Friday 20 August 2021

Snail Anthology, and an Insect

 A mini-anthology of snail poems could be extracted from this blog. Over the years I have posted snail-themed lines from Shakespeare (Venus and Adonis, as joyously quoted by Keats in a letter written from Box Hill) –

'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.'

Then Cowper, beguiled by the secure self-sufficiency of a creature that carries its home on its back –

'The Snail

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.' 

Marianne Moore, like Keats and Shakespeare, is impressed by the 'contractility' of the snail's 'occipital horn' – 

'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.'

Thom Gunn attempts to enter the mysterious nocturnal world of the snail, moving 'in a wood of desire' (it is hard to escape the erotic subtext) –
'Considering the Snail

The snail pushes through a green
night, for the grass is heavy
with water and meets over
the bright path he makes, where rain
has darkened the earth's dark. He
moves in a wood of desire,

pale antlers barely stirring
as he hunts. I cannot tell
what power is at work, drenched there
with purpose, knowing nothing.
What is a snail's fury? All
I think is that if later

I parted the blades above
the tunnel and saw the thin
trail of broken white across
litter, I would never have
imagined the slow passion
to that deliberate progress.'

And now I have found a worthy new entry for the snail anthology – a fine poem by Janet Lewis (best known perhaps for her novel The Wife of Martin Guerre). Like Gunn, she attempts to enter the snail's world, but hers is the poem of a gardener, and it ends (uniquely?) with the poet, 'taking sides in the universe', dealing death to her subject. 
'Snail Garden
This is the twilight hour of the morning
When the snails retreat over the wet grass
To their hidden world, when my dreams, retreating,
Leave me wondering what wisdom goes with them,
What hides in mouldering earth.
Softly they go, the snails,
Naked, unguarded, perceptive
Of the changing light, rejoicing
In their slow progress from leaf to stem,
From stem to deeper darkness.
Smoothness delights them.

What do they hear? The air above them
Is full of the sharp cries of birds.
Do they see? The lily bud,
Three feet above the soil on its leafy stalk,
Is known to them at midnight
As if it were a lighthouse. Before sunrise
They have gnawed it half in two.
Toothless mouths, blind mouths
Have turned the leaf of the hollyhock to lace,
And cut the stem of the nasturtium
Neatly, just below the blossom.

The classic shell, cunningly arched, and strong
Against the hazards of the grassy world
Is nothing before the power of my intention.
The larks, also, have had their fun,
Crashing that coiled shell on stone,
Guiltless in their freedom.

But I have taken sides in the universe.
I have killed the snail that lay on the morning leaf,
Not grudging greatly the nourishment it took
Out of my abundance,
Chard, periwinkle, capucine,
Occasional lily bud,
But I have begun my day with death,
Death given, death to be received.
I have stepped into the dance;
I have greeted at daybreak
That necessary angel, that other.'
Janet Lewis also wrote one of the best, most acutely observant and imaginative, of all butterfly poems (and she wrote it at the age of 95) –

The Insect

The power and mystery are there,

Relentless grandeur, as the wet insect

Struggles to rise, to cleanse the jointed foreleg,

Sleek the folded wings.

Bound in the liquid of the long enchantment,

Predestined from the days

When it crawled softly

With its many feet

On twig and stock and clung at last

To wind itself for sleep,

Imprisoned in its destiny, can it

Foresee the sunlit moment,

The lifting air beneath,

The rainbowed wings?’


  1. I read recently that the odious Patricia Highsmith bred snails in her garden. She even carried snails around in her handbag with a piece of lettuce for them. It was quite the hit at parties!

  2. Ugh. Snails don't need any help breeding in my garden...