In May, the author tells of his/her chance encounter with a copperhead on the road one night as it lay “golden under the street lamp,” silent and tense and fearless. Having long wanted to see one, he/she kneels down transfixed, fascinated by its lethal grace, its being unlike the common black and green and garter snakes that evince only shyness; here is a real death striker within arm’s reach. The author remembers not its distinct markings or size or other physical characterstic other than the fact that its head is “wedge-shaped and fell back to the unexpected slimness of a neck,” its body “thick, tense and electric.” He/she moves a little, catching the creature’s attention; it jerks as if to attack, and he/she jumps back. The snake flows “on across the road and down into the dark,” leaving him/her alone to contemplate the woods and the stars.
Only a reptile, but what feelings it does evoke! Meeting the copperhead is an exciting experience that leaves one more capable of appreciating life. “I hope to see everything in this world before I die,” says the author, speaking of a hope that is uniquely human. The poem captures an impression, a feeling, and by so doing prints an image of the poet as well: curious, contemplative, daring, desirous to embark on a quest to discover everything that life has to offer.
Almost everyone shares the author’s wish to “see everything in this world” before he/she dies, like the boy in Van Dyke’s The Blue Flower who, seeing his own burial lot already allotted to him, becomes terribly restless, “longing to see the world and to taste happiness” before his time comes to sleep beneath the elm tree where his future graveyard lies. Such, to my mind, is the author’s yearning: she is drawn to the copperhead as a moth is drawn to a flame, or a soldier lured to the battlefield, not by dreams of glory and honor, but by some vague notion that a face-to-face confrontation with death would make him better appreciate the joy of living.
But why does one have to look for excitement in things as wild, as unpredictable, as deadly as a copperhead? Perhaps, humans are drawn to the snake by the realization that they have a thing in common: a vulnerability without the fang. Remove man’s weapons, and he is but a feeble animal. Of course, one can learn everything about snakes through books or the Internet or the science lab. The author, if he/she wants to, can view the copperhead in its glass cage as it sleeps, coiled and undisturbed. But a snake in the open, especially in one’s yard, always strikes terror.
Like the serpent in the garden of Eden, it suggests cunning, mystery, power. Gliding and winding and recoiling, it has a beauty that seduces and mesmerizes. One must see a real snake up close and personal to have a glimpse of the real world. In this regard, “to see everything” does not simply amount to viewing things through a microscope, or watching a lion in its kingdom in the veldt from the safety of a car. It is akin to courting danger for the love of being scared, to feel one’s blood pulsing upon coming face to face with real-life demons. It is not seeing the world the way a tourist normally does, nor as a nature lover admires butterflies. Nor is it a foolhardy man’s courtship of danger. The author does not go out of his/her way to meet the snake; it happens by chance. His/her wish “to see everything in this world” does not necessarily refer to making a solo voyage across the ocean, or free-falling from a cliff, or climbing the Himalayas “because it’s there.” It is not seeking danger for its sake, but finding comfort in deliverance when real danger comes along.
The author’s desire “to see everything in this world” before dying echoes Thoreau’s self-admonition on his quest, living by himself in the woods, “to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life . . . to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms” (Walden). May’s author may not have gone to the extent of exploring the earth’s frontiers, at least not that we know of, to see everything in this planet: his/hers is only a hope, perhaps a childish one, for nobody can ever hope to see everything in a multiple of lifetimes. It is a powerful voice, nonetheless, emanating from within, that is always heard above the din of humanity.
In a sense, May is Rubaiyat-like in its simplicity: “make the most of what we may yet spend,/ Before we too into the Dust Descend.” Of course, May never tells us to indulge before we die, nor does it preach or call our attention to the plight of endangered species. But it gives an impression of urgency: life is too short to be squandered on trivial pursuits.
The author sees the copperhead not in some desert but in an inhabited town, perhaps a city fringed by woods, illumined not by the sun or moon but by a street lamp. Perhaps it is a reminder of our affinity with the wild. Maybe it is one way of telling us that material comforts and soft living have deprived us of the age-old need to go out and face our monsters. After the copperhead has flown “across the road and down into the dark,” the author “stood a while, listening to the small sounds of the woods and looking at the stars.” He/she notes that “after excitement we are so restful” and that “when the thumb of fear lifts, we are so alive.” Restfulness and vivacity are the aftermath of excitement and fear. But is it possible to become restful and alive at the same time? Meditative, or thoughtful, would be more apt. One can be brimming with life and excitement even when confined to a sickbed.
The encounter with the copperhead heightens the author’s appreciation of nature’s other gifts, such as the small sounds of the woods and a view of the stars. At night, one can hear faint stirrings in the forest as predator and prey make their nocturnal rounds: a squirrel being caught in a coyote’s jaws, a rat being snatched by an owl on the wing. Yet humans do not really know, cannot really comprehend the life-and-death struggles that occur in their midst unless they too assume the role of predator or prey, killer or victim. The former is excited by the fact that it has power over the weak; the latter by the fact that it can outrun, even outwit, its pursuer. Has this not been the lot of all creatures since time began? In meeting the copperhead, the author unexpectedly catches a glimpse of what life really consisted of before civilization. By listening to the woods, one can hear the coming and going of life. By looking at the stars, one can wish life would go on forever.
Every human at some point early in life feels an itch to set out and conquer the world, like the frog in the parable of the well, or like the pioneers in the old West who could not settle down despite the abundance of game and the rich land of the frontier; they always wanted to move on, to find out what lay over the horizon all the way to the Pacific. That is man’s nature, and nothing has stopped him – not if it took all the copperheads in the world – to go and see what there is to find, even if it would only lead to frustration and despair. Every person yearns to find his/her El Dorado.
May suggests endless possibilities, once-in-a-lifetime chances, secrets waiting to be discovered, if only we are willing to face them. Day after day we meet common people that do not impress us by their shyness, ordinary people, boring people. The daily routine becomes a blur and before we know it we are old, confined to a wheelchair, unsure of whether or not we had ever lived at all. But once in a rare while we come across a deadly copperhead.
May is all about someone’s feelings after a brush with a poisonous snake. Maybe it is not about crossing the Sahara or climbing Mount Everest after all, but simply a matter of having to confront our own copperheads as we chance upon them in our everyday lives.
Khayyam, Omar. The Rubaiyat. 31 May 2007. <http://www.okonlife.com/poems/page2.htm>