Monday, February 29, 2016

Life Explained, Part Thirty-Three: Snail

The sight of an empty snail shell in the garden or on the sidewalk always saddens me.  What fate befell the vanished inhabitant of that husk? "Moving at a snail's pace" will no doubt expose a creature to any number of misadventures.  And so the glimmering trail ends.

I realize, dear readers, that those of you who are gardeners may see the snail as a nuisance -- a single-minded engine of destruction.  I am also aware that some among you may consider the poems that follow to be instances of the worst sort of sentimental anthropomorphization, egregious examples of the Pathetic Fallacy.

I cannot muster a reasoned response to these potential objections.  The best that I can come up with is this:  there is no accounting for taste (mine, of course).  I came across the first poem a few weeks ago, and it immediately caught my fancy.  The three poems that follow it are long-time companions of which I am quite fond.  It occurred to me that it would be nice to see all of them together in one place.  As the benevolent (I hope!) dictator of this space, I can only beg your indulgence.

                       Upon the Snail

She goes but softly, but she goeth sure;
     She stumbles not as stronger creatures do:
Her journey's shorter, so she may endure
     Better than they which do much further go.

She makes no noise, but stilly seizeth on
     The flower or herb appointed for her food,
The which she quietly doth feed upon,
     While others range, and gare, but find no good.

And though she doth but very softly go,
     However 'tis not fast, nor slow, but sure;
And certainly they that do travel so,
     The prize they do aim at they do procure.

John Bunyan, A Book for Boys and Girls, or, Country Rhymes for Children (1686).

"Gare" (line 8) is glossed by one editor as "stare about."  Other editors (primarily in the 19th century) substitute "glare" in its place, apparently presuming that there was a misprint in the original text of 1686.  The adjectival form of "gare" means "eager, covetous, desirous of wealth."  OED. Given that Bunyan's book of children's poems was intended to edify, I would like to suggest (with absolutely no authority) that it would be nice to think of "gare" as meaning "to look about covetously."  Which a wise snail would never do, of course.

Charles Ginner (1878-1952), "Hartland Point from Boscastle" (1941)

It is the combination of self-sufficiency and leisurely, contemplative deliberativeness that makes the snail so beguiling and so sympathetic a character, don't you think?

                        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.

Vincent Bourne (translated by William Cowper), in H. S. Milford (editor), The Complete Poetical Works of William Cowper (Oxford University Press 1907).

A side-note:  Vincent Bourne (1695-1747) was an Englishman who wrote poetry in Latin.  Cowper was a pupil of Bourne's at Westminster School. Later in his life, Cowper translated a number of Bourne's poems, including "The Jackdaw" and "The Thracian," which have appeared here previously.

"Well satisfied to be his own/Whole treasure":  yes, that's it, exactly!

Charles Ginner, "The Aqueduct, Bath" (1928)

The subject of my previous post was the role of "wonder" in the poetry of Walter de la Mare.  Wonder certainly plays a role in de la Mare's contemplation upon the snail in the following poem.  Having said that, I recognize that every good poem, on any subject, to some degree has its source in a poet's wonder at "the beauty and strangeness of creation" (to borrow W. H. Auden's words).

                         The Snail

All day shut fast in whorled retreat
You slumber where -- no wild bird knows;
While on your rounded roof-tree beat
The petals of the rose.
The grasses sigh above your house;
Through drifts of darkest azure sweep
The sun-motes where the mosses drowse
That soothe your noonday sleep.

But when to ashes in the west
Those sun-fires die; and, silver, slim,
Eve, with the moon upon her breast,
Smiles on the uplands dim;
Then, all your wreathèd house astir,
Horns reared, grim mouth, deliberate pace,
You glide in silken silence where
The feast awaits your grace.

Strange partners, Snail!  Then I, abed,
Consign the thick-darked vault to you,
Nor heed what sweetness night may shed
Nor moonshine's slumbrous dew.

Walter de la Mare, The Fleeting and Other Poems (Constable 1933).

The entire poem is lovely, but my favorite lines are these:  "While on your rounded roof-tree beat/The petals of the rose."  What a beautiful image and thought.  It is enough to make you envy a snail's life.

Charles Ginner, "Lancaster from Castle Hill Terrace" (1947)

"Strange partners, Snail!"  Yes, you and I and the snail and all else in the World are strange (and beautiful) partners during our short time together on earth.  "The divinest blessings are the commonest -- bestowed everywhere."  So says Walt Whitman.  (Richard Maurice Bucke (editor), Notes and Fragments: Left by Walt Whitman (1899), page 49.)

        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.

Thom Gunn, My Sad Captains (Faber and Faber 1961).

"The slow passion/to that deliberate progress."  Can we speak of a snail's passion?  Yes, of course.  Why not?

Charles Ginner, "The Punt in the Mill Stream"


Anonymous said...

You need not beg this reader's indulgence: your posting about snails delightful, one exuding great pleasure. It was delightful to read. When I read your posting, the below examples came to mind. I'm sure more poems about snails exist. No, a snail is not a nightingale, but, withal, the lowly snail reveals as much about the human heart as does the caroling nightingale. In truth, a disinterested observer might conclude that we poor humans are much more like the snail than like the noble nightingale

The Snail by William Cowper

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.

As you like it
Act IV Scene I Line 52
ROSALIND Nay, an you be so tardy, come no more in my sight: I
had as lief be wooed of a snail.

ORLANDO Of a snail?

ROSALIND Ay, of a snail; for though he comes slowly, he
carries his house on his head; a better jointure,
I think, than you make a woman: besides he brings
his destiny with him.

ORLANDO What's that?

ROSALIND Why, horns, which such as you are fain to be
beholding to your wives for: but he comes armed in
his fortune and prevents the slander of his wife

King Lear
Act I Scene V Line 29
KING LEAR:Canst tell how an oyster makes his shell?
FOOL: Nor I neither; but I can tell why a snail has a house.
FOOL: Why, to put his head in; not to give it away to his
daughters, and leave his horns without a case.

Venus and Adonis
Or, as the snail, whose tender horns being hit,
Shrinks backward in his shelly cave with pain,
And there, all smother'd up, in shade doth sit,
Long after fearing to creep forth again


mary f.ahearn said...

come in snail
and live with me...
early winter rain

I enjoyed this post so much - I share your sentiments about our fellow creatures and their place in poetry.
Thanks again for sharing the poems and art. As you know, Issa, one of the great haiku masters, was a friend to all creatures and wrote lovingly of them. All a part of one another.


Stephen Pentz said...

Anonymous: Thank you for your kind words about the post, for the passages from Shakespeare, and for your thoughts. Well, perhaps we humans are compounded of both snails and nightingales -- not such a bad thing.

Thanks again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mary: You and I seem to be on the same wavelength: after I completed the post, the thought occurred to me: "There must be some haiku about snails. I ought to take a look." I was planning to browse through R. H. Blyth's 4-volume work, which is my Bible on these matters, but now your comment has arrived: thank you very much!

Issa's haiku is lovely. And, as you suggest, it makes perfect sense that Issa (with his compassion) would write about a snail -- he was indeed, as you say, "a friend to all creatures." As you know, he also wrote haiku about fleas, mosquitoes, and much else. The one about fleas (which I'm sure you are familiar with) is wonderful (the following translation is by Blyth):

For you fleas too,
The night must be long,
It must be lonely.

"All a part of one another" is a fine way to put it. For me, this message comes through strongly in the haiku of Issa and the other masters, particularly Bashō.

I'm pleased you liked the post, and I appreciate your kind words. It's always nice to hear from you. Thank you for stopping by.

David said...

How delightful to devote an entire post to the snail! You are perhaps familiar with the haiku by (I think) Basho:

A brushwood gate,
And for a lock -
This snail.

I've always loved this haiku, though I can't explain why it means so much to me.

Clare Dudman said...

What lovely poems and pictures! A pleasure to read - and thanks to Dave Lull for alerting me to it.

Bruce Floyd said...

Recently I have begun making my way through the "Collected Poems of Ted Hughes," a tome of over 1300 pages. He was almost as prolific as Hardy, though, to this reader, not the poet--though Hughes wrote some good poetry. Opinions vary as to the worth of his poems. Some have called him the greatest poet of his time. My guess is that Hughes is not read much these days. Time will tell; it always does.

With Hughes, of course, the hard thing to do is to concentrate on the poems and forget the scandalous aspects of his life, this Laocoon tangle with Plath.

An early poem of his is titled "Snails." I think the closing of the poem redeems it:

Out of the earliest ooze, old
Even by sea-stone time,
Slimed as eels, wrinkled as whales,
And cold
As dogs' noses,
And slow, sap-slow,
under their coiled cauls of shells
The roses.

Stephen Pentz said...

David: Thank you. I'm pleased you liked the post. And thank you as well for sharing the haiku, which is lovely.

Actually, the haiku was written by Issa, which is a nice coincidence, given the haiku by him that Mary shared above. The translation that you quote pretty much corresponds with the translation by R. H. Blyth which appears in his Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (page 246) (except that Blyth leaves out "and" in the second line). Blyth attributes the haiku to Issa.

I can understand why you are fond of it. Not being able to explain why it means so much to you is in the nature of haiku (and of poetry and art, in general), don't you think? "No explanations (or explications) are necessary" is my general rule!

Thank you again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Ms. Dudman: Thank you very much for your kind words about the post. I'm happy that you found your way here, and I hope you will return. Thanks again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr. Floyd: I confess that my knowledge of Hughes's poetry is negligible -- this has nothing to do with his life; I've just somehow missed the poetry, save for a few anthology pieces. Thus, I appreciate your sharing "Snails." I particularly like "And cold/As dogs' noses."

As always, thank you very much for visiting, and for sharing your thoughts.

John Ashton said...

Mr Pentz, What a delightful post. Being a gardener myself, though mostly of fruit and vegetables rather than flowers, I've never seen snails as a nuisance.

They are rather beautiful and elegant creatures. If we are talking of "single-minded engines of destruction" then we are speaking of slugs. Slugs I remove, though never kill, snails I always leave where they are. There are too many others happily willing to put an end to their lives in the garden. I would rather rescue them, as I do from pavements after rain, when so many unheedingly step on them.

The De La Mare poem is wonderful. I don't recall reading it before. The lines
" Through drifts of darkest azure sweep" to the end of that verse are exquisite.
A few months back a friend of mine in New York recommended a book to me, not the kind of book I would normally read, but which turned out to be better than I'd expected,and from which I learned so much about snails and the extraordinary world they inhabit. You may be interested,the title is: The sound of a wild snail eating by Elizabeth Bailey.

I'm also sure you are aware of some of the enchanting dialect names for snails, Mainly from East Anglia, such as hodmandod, dodman, doddiman, and of course there is John Clare who uses the word "pooty" for snail shells.

A favourite haiku of mine, also written by Issa, I believe.

Right at my feet
when did you get here

Graham Guest said...

Gardeners should beware of engaging snails in a fight, as these pictures show.

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Ashton: Thank you very much for the thought-provoking comments.

I agree with you about those lines in de la Mare's poem. I also like "The grasses sigh above your house." As I believe you and I have discussed in the past, de la Mare (like Hardy and Christina Rossetti) is one of those poets who wrote enough poems that new discoveries (and rediscoveries of forgotten gems) always occur when visiting their poetry.

Thank you for the recommendation of Elizabeth Bailey's book, which I wasn't aware of. I've read some excerpts from the Amazon website: it looks delightful, both in terms of learning something new about the world of the snail, and about the struggles the author was going through during the time she made her acquaintance with her companion.

I was not aware of the dialect names for snails -- thank you for those.

And last, but not least, thank you for the haiku by Issa. Based upon this, and the two others shared by Mary and David, it appears that Issa is indeed the haiku master of snail poems. By the way, here is R. H. Blyth's translation of the haiku you quote:

When did it come here
Close by me,
This snail?

Both versions have their merits, I think.

As always, it is a pleasure to hear from you. Thank you very much for visiting again.

Stephen Pentz said...

Graham: Thank you very much for this! This is something new to me. I have now done some preliminary Internet research on "knights fighting snails," and I am intrigued. Yes, it turns out that snails should not be trifled with!

Thank you again. I appreciate your sharing the images, which are delightful. Thanks for stopping by.

Jeff said...

What a wonderful anthology of snail poetry you've put together here. I've seen slugs galore, but I've yet to see a snail among my plants. Perhaps I need to look more closely.

To follow up on Graham's comment: there is indeed an interesting medieval tradition of knights doing battle with snails in manuscript illuminations, but the subject was occasionally fit for poetry too. One of my gargoyles inspired me to translate a comical medieval Latin poem about a Lombard (stereotyped during the high Middle Ages as cowardly) locked in battle with your current favorite beastie. It's in my book and also on my website, if you're curious.

I've been bad about blog-reading in recent weeks, but I loved your Walter de la Mare post. He's darned near forgotten these days, and undeservedly so.

Stephen Pentz said...

Jeff: I'm pleased you liked the post. Thank you very much for your kind words about it, as well as about the de la Mare post (it's nice to discover that there are so many others who also appreciate his work).

And thank you for the further information about knights and snails (and Lombards), including the reference to your poem (which led me to the discovery of the meaning of the word "waelstow," which was new to me). My Internet research on the topic led me to some nice illuminated manuscript images, and a short discussion of "Knight versus Snail," in a post (September 26, 2013) on the Medieval Manuscripts Blog of the British Library. The Lombards are also mentioned, in connection with an article by Lilian Randall titled "The Snail in Gothic Marginal Warfare" (Speculum 37, No. 6, June 1962) -- I have no doubt that you are already familiar with it. I think I'll track it down.

As always, it is a pleasure to hear from you. Thank you very much for stopping by again.

Graham Guest said...

less than a snail
the slug has no place
in a world that looks down
on the homeless

Stephen Pentz said...

Graham: Thank you very much for that! I have sometimes wondered at the fate that deprived slugs of the snail's ready-made shelter. They seem so helpless in comparison.

Unknown said...

This post reminded me of a passage in John Lewis-Stempel's "Meadowland." Except, it turned out, I recalled it wrongly - I had thought it had been a passage where Lewis-Stempel encountered a creature and reflected that, as we are embodied creatures, surely "anthropomorphism" is something of a bogey.

However it turned out that the context is slightly different, more "literary" - and I think that it is not a "lab coated lobby" or "sciene Puritans" that are responsible for the phenomenon he describes, but a sort of nexus of pseudosophisticated journalism and those humanities practitioners who wish to ape the style and prestige of science...

Anyhow here is the quote.

Of course, some science Puritan will aver that British nature writing is diseased by ‘species shift’, or what W H Hudson (a leading practitioner) termed ‘extra-natural’ experience – the placing of the author inside the head and body of the being described. The same lab-coated lobby invariably sign off with the dig that ‘nature writing’ and, by extension, ‘nature reading’ are the habit of metropolitans detached from the real Nature of the red teeth and claws.

Every time I hear this argument I wind back my memory more than thirty years, to the little second sitting room of my grandparents’ house in Withington. They had impeccable country credentials stretching back centuries, although admittedly in my grandfather’s case only to the early 1600s. There were no parish records before then.
In the second sitting room, there are only three shelves of the dark wood bookcase; on them are a few respectable novels in paper polka-dot jackets (led by Du Maurier and Somerset Maugham), at least ten books about Herefordshire (I must have read Where Wye and Severn Flow twelve times by the age of twelve) .. and an awful lot of books by Romany, aka the Reverend George Brammel Evens, a BBC radio broadcaster and writer on nature. There was Out With Romany, Out With Romany Again, Out with Romany by Meadow and Stream, Out With Romany Once More, Out with Romany by the Sea …

There was nothing unusual about that little library. Everybody in the country had books on nature, farming and shooting. Brian Vesey-Fitzgerald for knowledge, James Herriot for laughs. And the worst anthropomorphizers of all are country people. I have never known a sow badget to be anything but an ‘old girl’, and when the gender of an animal is unknown it is always ‘he’, and never ‘it’.

And I wonder, is it really so difficult to enter, in some slight degree, into the mind-frame of an animal? Are we not all beasts?

Stephen Pentz said...

Mr Sweeney: Thank you for sharing the passage from John Lewis-Stempel, whose name is new to me. In addition to the passage you quote, I have since read further excerpts of Meadowland on the Internet -- it looks lovely. Thank you for introducing me to yet another writer I ought to have known about.

I agree with you that his meditation on anthropomorphism is enlightening. I like his reference to W. H. Hudson's term "extra-natural experience": I think this gets to the heart of the matter, and is something that the "science Puritans" (a fine term, I think, despite your apparent reservations about it) have difficulty understanding. In the past, I have talked here about the choice we have of living in an enchanted or a disenchanted world. I like to think that I always choose the former, and, if that involves anthropomorphism, so be it. Yes, Nature is "red in tooth and claw" (as is human nature), but that is not the end of the story.

Thank you very much for visiting again, and for sharing your thoughts. I appreciate hearing from you.

Deb said...

Was browsing through an anthology called "Journeys", edited by Charles Nicholl, this morning, and found the following. Was reminded of this lovely post dealing with snails. (I have a soft spot for molluscs)

from "Verse Letter to Sir Henry Wotton"

Be then thine own home, and in thyself dwell;
Inn anywhere; continuance maketh hell.
And seeing the snail, which everywhere doth roam,
Carrying his own house still, still is at home; 50
Follow - for he is easy paced - this snail,
Be thine own palace, or the world’s thy gaol.
And in the world’s sea do not like cork sleep
Upon the water’s face; nor in the deep
Sink like a lead without a line; but as 55
Fishes glide, leaving no print where they pass,
Nor making sound; so closely thy course go,
Let men dispute, whether thou breathe or no.

John Donne

Not sure if it was editorial license or a typo, but in the book it was 'gale' instead of 'gaol', but this is also apt. Gaol works better though, I think...

Stephen Pentz said...

Deb: Thank you very much for sharing this, which is new to me, and wonderful. "Carrying his own house still, still is at home" is lovely. As is this: "Be then thine own home, and in thyself dwell." By the way, I believe that "gaol" is the accepted reading; I think "gale" was, as you say, either editorial license (or an editorial mistake) or a typo.

Thank you as well for introducing me to this anthology, which I was not aware of, but should have been, since I have read and enjoyed a few books by Charles Nicholl. You are probably already familiar with him, but, if not, I recommend The Reckoning (about the murder of Christopher Marlowe) and The Creature in the Map (about Walter Ralegh's expedition to South America in search of "El Dorado).

As always, it is a pleasure to hear from you. Thanks again.