Poison of Asps

(notes by Philip Holberton)


This poem was first published in the Morning Post (London), on December 9th, 1927, and in Liberty (New York) on March 3rd, 1928, with “A Snake Farm”. It is listed in ORG as no 1150.

Collected in:

  • Brazilian Sketches (1940)
  • Definitive Verse (1940)
  • The Sussex Edition vol xxxv (1939)
  • The Burwash Edition vol xxviii (1941)
  • Cambridge Edition (2013) Ed. Pinney, p. 1419

The poem

A snake asks why men seek them out. Actually, it knows perfectly well: it is to make antidotes to their poison. But in the last verse, it takes the enmity between snake and man right back to the Garden of Eden.

During their Brazilian journey. the Kiplings visited one of the world’s leading poisonous animal research laboratories and serum producers. Within the University City (Avenida Vital Brasil 1500, São Paulo, is the Butantã Institute, world-famed for its studies of poisonous snakes. See our notes on the article.

Notes on the Text

[Verse 1]

Asps: ‘Asp’ is the modern Anglicisation of the word aspis, which in antiquity referred to any one of several venomous snake species found in the Nile region. In Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra” Cleopatra commits suicide through the bite of an asp.

The Title and first line are a Biblical quotation from Romans 3.13. St Paul, writing to the Romans says of the unrighteous :

Their throat is an open sepulchre; with their tongues they have used deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips.

One wonders whether Mrs Holloway, young Rudyard’s evangelical foster mother at the ‘House of Desolation’, who – when he made up stories – accused him of being a liar, ever used that quotation to him?

knotted fellowships: Some species of snake tangle together into big groups, particularly in the breeding season.

[Verse 2]

Most snakes will move out of the way if they hear noisy-footed men coming.

[Verse 3]

works its way to the heart: The poison of some species of snake, for instance mambas and cobras, has a direct toxic action on the heart.

[Vers= 4]  and thin them out to your good: Anti-venom is made by injecting a horse with increasing doses of the poison, starting with some that are greatly thinned out. Kipling describes the process in detail in the second-last paragraph of the accompanying article.

[Verse 5] we hissed at Adam’s eclipse: a reference to the story of the Garden of Eden and how Adam and Eve fell into original sin (Genesis 3.) In the Biblical story, the snake did much more than just hiss as if applauding the Fall: it actively tempted Eve to eat the Forbidden Fruit (v. 1-6). As a punishment, God said to the serpent ‘I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed.’ (v.15)

‘Seed’ here means “descendants”, and this text is still quoted as a reason to hate and fear snakes. Snakes figure in a number of Kipling’s Indian stories, including Kim (p. 61), “The Return of Imray” (Life’s Handicap), and the Jungle Books (“Kaa’s Hunting”, “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi” and “The King’s Ankus”), though not always as evil; witness Mowgli’s relationship with Kaa, in “Red Dog”.

©Philip Holberton 2017 All rights reserved