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The Snail

July 11, 2016
The grass, or leaf, or fruit, or wall
The snails 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 hermitlike 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 combined)
If finding it, he fails to find
Its master.

William Cowper, 1773

COMMENTARY: Like many of the other Augustan poets, William Cowper wrote a number of “object studies,” short, pithy poems describing an object or scene and then moralizing about it: bees bumping against windowpanes to try to eat the pineapples on the other side (the vanity of human ambition), a dog among lilies (loyalty), the heel of a lady’s shoe (vanity again). Though the descriptive portions of these poems are often vividly evoked, the morals can often come across as contrived and have the unfortunate effect of rendering the poems down to fortune cookies. In this poem, however, capital L, Lesson, doesn’t sweep in to vanquish little l, lyric. The eye of the poet scrupulously and lovingly (and quite musically) attends to every detail of the garden snail: the way it clings to the wall as if it were part of the stone, the way it holds up under weather, the way it shrinks back into its shell at the slightest touch. In delicate, brisk, tiptoeing quatrains (each one shaped like a snail with the little fourth line creeping out) Cowper gives us a perfect imagistic still life.

Which isn’t to say Lesson isn’t lurking in there. Maybe the snail is the studious and hermetic thinker who retires from the world until he is one with his scholarly work? Maybe it’s Cowper himself who felt increasingly ill at ease in public life, and, after being committed to an asylum, became something of a church wallflower? Or maybe the poem is meant to be the house (room/stanza, etc.) and the snail the poet who is ever present in the “whole treasure” of his work? Any of these readings, or all of them simultaneously, are possible and the multifariousness of interpretation, the fetching ambiguity, is one reason why I’m grateful Cowper elected not to end the poem with a mallet of didacticism.

One Comment
  1. richibi permalink

    a beautiful elucidation, moonbeam – Richard

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