By Dannie Abse 1923–2014 Dannie Abse
When the snake bit   
Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa   
while he was praying

the snake died. (Each day   
is attended by surprises   
or it is nothing.)

Question: was the bare-footed,   
smelly Rabbi more poisonous   
than the snake

or so God-adulterated   
he’d become immune   
to serpent poison?

Oh great-great-great-uncles,   
your palms weighing air,   
why are you arguing?

Listen, the snake thought   
(being old and unwell   
and bad-tempered as hell)

Death, where’s thy sting?   
In short, was just testing:   
a snake’s last fling.

Yes, the so-called snake
was dying anyway, its heart   
calcified and as old as Eden.

No, that snake was A1 fit   
but while hissing for fun it   
clumsily bit its own tongue.

No, Hanina invented that snake;   
not for his own sake but for first-
class, religious publicity.

No no, here’s the key to it.   
Ask: did the Rabbi, later on,   
become a jumpy, timid man?

Remember, he who has been bitten   
by a snake thereafter becomes   
frightened of a rope …

Bearded men in darkening rooms   
sipping lemon tea and arguing   
about the serpent till the moon

of Russia, of Latvia, Lithuania,   
Poland, rose above the alien   
steeples—centuries of sleep.

Now, tonight, a clean-shaven rabbi   
who once studied in Vienna   
says snake-venom contains

haemolysins, haemo-
coagulants, protolysins,   
cytolysins and neurotoxins

and that even in Hanina
ben Dosa’s day a snake was a   
snake—unless, of course, it was

a penis, an unruly penis,   
making a noise like one pissing   
on a mound of fresh hot ashes.

Oh great-great-great-uncles
did you hear him? And are your   
handbones weighing moonshine?

Dannie Abse, “Snake” from New and Collected Poems, published by Hutchinson. Used by permission of The Random House Group Limited,

Source: White Coat Purple Coat: Collected Poems 1948-1988 (1994)

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Poet Dannie Abse 1923–2014


Subjects Family & Ancestors, Religion, Pets, Judaism, History & Politics, Social Commentaries, Relationships

Poetic Terms Metaphor

 Dannie  Abse


The title of Dannie Abse’s collected poems, White Coat, Purple Coat (1989), refers to his lifelong professions of physician and poet. Of these careers, Abse has stated, “I like to think I’m a poet and Medicine my serious hobby.”

Considered one of the most important Welsh writers of the past century, Abse was born in Cardiff, Wales, to non-Welsh-speaking parents, but lived mostly in London. His poetry collections include . . .

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SUBJECT Family & Ancestors, Religion, Pets, Judaism, History & Politics, Social Commentaries, Relationships


Poetic Terms Metaphor

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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