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Denise Levertov

To the snake

Some questions to challenge you!

Keith Tankard
Updated: 18 January 2014
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At a first glance, the poet has draped a green snake around her neck and stroked it, listening to its hissing scales as it moved slowly around her ears. She proclaimed it to be harmless whereas her companions believed it to be dangerous. It nevertheless gave her great pleasure to have bonded so with the snake.

On the other hand, this poem has been interpreted as representing sexuality (the snake is a sex symbol) or greed, money and gambling (the Green Snake is synonymous with the American "greenback" dollar). Or perhaps the snake represents temptation, just as the First Woman in Eden was tempted by the serpent.


Denise Levertov is regarded as an internationally respected American poet.

She was born in Ilford (Essex) in 1923. Her father, a teacher at Leipzig University, had been a Russian Jew who had been held under house arrest as an "alien enemy" during World War I. After the war he and his family moved to England where he converted to Christianity and then became an Anglican priest.

Levertov was educated at home and involved herself in writing from an early age. These writings reveal the pressures of one who felt herself to be "the other", being part of but nevertheless excluded from most identities: both Jew and Christian, German and English, etc.

At the age of five, she was already saying that she would be a writer when she grew up. At 12 she sent some of her poems to the poet T.S. Eliot who gave her some "excellent advice". She was 17 when she published her first poem. Her first book - The Double Image - was published when she was 23.

She married American writer, Mitchell Goodman, and this caused her to relocate to the United States in 1948, where she and her husband lived in New York. She would have a son through this marriage. Although she later divorced, she nevertheless became a naturalized citizen and her poetry has been described as being "thoroughly American".

Like many thinking Americans, Levertov became politically motivated during the Vietnam War, joining in the protests against American involvement. Apart from her protest poetry, she also wrote many poems with religious themes, ranging from religious imagery to implied metaphors of religion.

She taught at several American universities and received a Doctorate in Literature from Bates College.

She died in December 1997 and was buried in Seattle. She was then 74 years of age.

Have you looked at the questions
in the right column?
Read the left column and then answer
the following questions:

What is SIBILANCE? Comment on the use of sibilance in this poem. (4)

[Need help?]


"Green Snake, when I hung you round my neck
and stroked your cold, pulsing throat
as you hissed to me"
  • Why would the poet address the snake as "Green Snake" (she does this twice)? (4)

[Need help?]

  • Contrast the words "cold", "pulsing throat" and "hissed". (4)

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"Green Snake - I swore to my companions that certainly
you were harmless! But truly
I had no certainty, and no hope, only desiring
to hold you, for that joy, which left
a long wake of pleasure"
  • Explain the poet's hopes and emotions here. (4)

[Need help?]

  • Why does the poet speak of "a long wake of pleasure"? (4)

[Need help?]


"Green Snake, when I hung you round my neck
and stroked your cold, pulsing throat
as you hissed to me, glinting
arrowy gold scales, and I felt
the weight of you on my shoulders,
and the whispering silver of your dryness
sounded close at my ears"
  • An argument has been put forward that this poem is more about money, greed and gambling than about a snake. If so, what then would the term "Green Snake" portray? (2)

[Need help?]

  • What then would the words "I hung you round my neck", "stroked your cold, pulsing throat" and "as you hissed to me, glinting arrowy gold scales" signify? (4)

[Need help?]


Given that the poet was attracted to religious and biblical images in her poetry, it is quite possible that her Green Snake alludes to the serpent in the Garden of Eden.
  • To what then would "the whispering silver of your dryness sounded close at my ears" alude? (4)

[Need help?]

  • Generally speaking, most people claim that the serpent in Eden was dangerous. Does the poet agree with this interpretation? If so, how do you explain her words, "I swore to my companions that certainly you were harmless!" (4)

[Need help?]

How then should one interpret this poem? (10)

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