When John Ashbery reviewed Elizabeth Bishop’s Complete Poems in 1969 for The New York Times, his review was accompanied by an illustration: two giant snails stretching from under their shells to touch one another. Ashbery never mentions the mollusks in his review, but beneath the image is an excerpt of Bishop’s prose poem “Giant Snail.”
“I give the impression of mysterious ease, but it is only with the greatest effort of my will,” Bishop’s mollusca persona muses, and one senses how very likely a proxy it is for the poet herself.
Bishop is not the only writer to have found solace or some of herself in a snail. Her coil-shelled critter was an homage to a paean by her mentor Marianne Moore. Moore’s “To a Snail” is a discourse on poetics that culminates “in the absence of feet” and “the curious phenomenon of your occiptal horn.” Moore seized on the snail’s self-sufficiency and endless ability to contract, praising its “grace” and “modesty.”
Moore’s praise of the snail was self-promoting, while Bishop’s portrait of the mollusk is tinged with sorrow. “But O! I am too big. I feel it. Pity me,” Bishop’s snail wallows before collapsing in defeat: “All night I shall be like a sleeping ear.”
Bishop’s snail was on a self-determined journey: “I have set myself a goal, a / certain rock, but it may well be dawn before I get there.” He shares that determination with the snail one finds in Virginia Woolf’s short story “Kew Gardens.”
Although their destinations differ, Bishop’s snail labors with the same ferocity as Woolf’s: “It appeared to have a definite goal in front of it,” Woolf writes, “differing in this respect from the singular high stepping angular green insect who attempted to cross in front of it.” Moving from one side of the flowerbed to another, traversing a tiny terrain that Woolf magnifies into cliffs, lakes, and boulders, the snail finds himself in the path of the many human characters of the story.
Woolf begins “Kew Gardens” with the snail’s perspective and returns to it after each human encounter: Simon and his wife Eleanor as they reveal to each other previous romantic encounters in the garden; William and an old man who is blabbering about heaven, war, and electricity before he retreats into silent thoughts of women he has known; two lower-class women who watch the old man attempting to discern whether he is “mad” or merely “eccentric” until they tire and decide to have their tea; and finally young Trissie and her unnamed male companion who debate the admission price for Kew Gardens.
“One couple after another,” the narrator observes, “with much the same irregular and aimless movement passed the flower-bed.” The aimlessness of the couples contrasts the snail’s determination, which for any artist, especially for Woolf and for Bishop, is enviable.
Snail envy animated the life of Patricia Highsmith, whose obsession with snails and their slimy sexual habits fills Joan Schenkar’s recent biography The Talented Miss Highsmith. A friend described Highsmith as “the woman who produced snails from her handbag and encouraged them to leave sticky trails all over her host’s tabletop.” She kept them as pets and carried them across borders in cheese cartons when she traveled, while her own fiction includes enough mentions of mollusks to merit a dissertation. There’s the short story “Two Disagreeable Pigeons” whose eponymous couple make their way around London harboring the hope that “rain would bring the worms out, maybe a snail or two.” Vic, the keeper of aquaria in the novel Deep Water, has a thousand or so snails that are mostly the product of one mating pair, Edgar and Hortense. Hortense takes her name from Highsmith’s own favorite gastropod, one of the three hundred snails that flew with her from New York to Paris, Rome, and Venice.
Another one of her characters, Professor Avery Clavering, leaves the safety of tenure at a California university to search for a giant snail species not yet named. “The Quest for Blank Clavering” chronicles the professor’s efforts, including the uncanny moment when he spies his first fifteen-foot-tall mollusk: “It resembled a peach-colored sail filled with wind, and the sunlight made nacreous, silvery patches gleam and twinkle as the great thing stirred.” The hunter becomes the hunted when Clavering’s snails chase him into the sea, leaving him to decide between drowning and being devoured.
Highsmith’s first foray into gastropods was “The Snail-Watcher” with a Mr. Knoppert who delights, like the author herself, in watching the creatures mate. Rescuing his first gastropods from his wife’s gustatory intentions, Mr. Knoppert soon has more than eleven hundred of the beasts in his study. Within a few hundred words, Mr. Knoppert’s curiosities take over his study and then overtake him in another one of Highsmith’s death-by-snails dénouements. The punishment for voyeurism is clear, though Highsmith herself, Joan Schenkar tells us in the biography, “found it ‘relaxing’ to watch her sails mate because their copulation had ‘an aesthetic quality, nothing more bestial in it than necking, really.’” Highsmith was also drawn to the androgyny of the hermaphroditic creatures, remarking how “it is quite impossible to tell which is the male and which is the female, because their behavior and appearance is exactly the same.”
Not surprisingly, then, Snail was the pseudonym chosen by the French writer Hélène van Zuylen van Nijevelt when she entered the 1898 Paris–Amsterdam–Paris motor race, becoming the first women to drive in an international race. A socialite from the Rothschild family, she had been disinherited by her family for marrying a Catholic man who raced under the name Escargot, and copublished most of her stories and poems under the nom de plume Paule Riversdale with her lover Renée Vivien.
It’s not only the androgyny and arduous ethic of snails that attracts artists. Gastropods were the source of one of the rarest dyes in antiquity. Thousands of snails are needed to produce a single pound of Tyrian purple dye. Pliny wrote one of the most careful descriptions of the process, devoting five chapters of his Historia Naturalis to the production of this deep, deep purple hue. Created from the mucous of Mediterranean sea snails, Tyrian purple became synonymous with royalty, with several emperors legislating that only the emperor himself could wear the color.
The poet Dan Chiasson was moved by the color in his revisioning of Pliny’s ancient record. “Making Purple,” one of the poems in Chiasson’s Natural History joins Bishop and Moore in rendering the dramatic monologue of a snail:
Imagine yourself suffusing a woman’s gown or sheets
your bloodstream running through her inkwell.
Those rich dyes once were your ideas, your love
of broccoli rabe. Half-killed cockles attract purples,
the reef is littered with the open mouths waiting to snap.
I am trying to make my pain attractive, my yearning
pretty. A man caught me in a fine-ply lobster pot.
He scalded me until I nearly died, then threw me back.
“I am trying to make my pain attractive, my yearning / pretty,” Chiasson’s critter cries, echoing the suffering sounds of those earlier snails crawling their way through the poetry of Elizabeth Bishop and Marianne Moore. Those plaintive declarations go far towards explaining why snails are both muse and mirror for so many artists: their enigmatic efforts to become beautiful, while never seeming to tire of their slow struggle.
Casey N. Cep is a writer from the Eastern Shore of Maryland.