A history of molluscs in poetry

In volume one his classic 19th century work “British Conchology”, John Gwyn Jeffreys wrote: "The snail has been but rarely the subject of poetical treatment. Minor poets would be afraid of touching it; and even in the hands of those great masters to whom it has been given to interpret the deeper harmonies of the universe, it is only upon rare occasions that this little animal could fittingly present itself as a link in the chain of their conceptions ..."

Jeffreys quotes from the poem "The Snail" by William Cowper. This is based on a Latin poem by his teacher at Westminster school, William Bourne, which, although written in the eighteenth century (Cowper died in 1800), was first published in William Hayley’s "Life and letters of William Cowper" (1803) :-

To grass, or leaf, or fruit, or wall,
The Snail sticks close, nor fears to fall,
As if he grew there, house and all

"The House-Keeper" (Album verses, 1830) by Charles Lamb is also a verse translation of Bourne :-

The frugal snail, with fore-cast of repose,
Carries his house with him, where’er he goes;
Peeps out - and if there comes a shower of rain,
Retreats to his small domicle amain.

Poems on Conchology and Botany by Sarah Hoare (1831) contains two stanzas on Helix. The remaining occurrences of Helis aspersa L. in 19th century verse are in rhymes written for children.

The snail was amongst the guests invited to "The Butterfly’s Ball, and the Grasshopper’s feast," which was first published in The Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Chronicle for November, 1806, "Said to have been Written by WILLIAM ROSCOE, Esq. M.P. for Liverpool, for the Use of his Children; and set to Music by order of their MAJESTIES, for the Princess MARY."

And the Snail, with her horns peeping out of her shell,
Came, fatigu’d with the distance, the length of an ell.

With steps most majestic the Snail did advance,
And he promis’d the gazers a minuet to dance;
But they all laugh’d so loud that he drew in his head,
And went in his own little chamber to bed.

The snail has undergone a change of sex in the course of the narrative!

Next follows a trifle by M.L. Elliot, which is headed by a deplorable drawing by Ernest Griset, in "National Nursery Rhymes and Nursery Songs set to original music" by J.W. Elliott (Novello & Co., 1870):

Six little Snails
Liv’d in a tree,
Johnny threw a big stone,
Down came three.

One of her charming sketches (though the snails are microscopic) heads the following sextain by Kate Greenaway in "Under the Window: Pictures and Rhymes for Children" (Routledge, 1878):

Little Miss Patty and Master Paul
Have found two snails on the garden wall.
"These snails," said Paul, "how slow they walk!-
A great deal slower than we can talk.
Make haste, Mr Snail, travel quicker I pray;
In a race with our tongues you’d be beaten to-day."

The snail was not overlooked by that celebrated Devon ‘squarson’ the Revd. Sabine Baring-Gould, who like Cowper was a hymn writer, now best remembered, abetted by Sir Arthur Sullivan, for "Onward Christian Soldiers".  Amongst the many publications of this prolific writer is A Book of Nursery Songs and Rhymes (Methuen, 1895), one of which is "The Snail":

The snail crawls out with his house on his back,
You may know whence he comes by his slimy track.
       Creep, creep, how slowly he goes,
And you’d do the same if you carried your house.

The snail crawls out with his house on his back,
But a blackbird is watching him on his track.
       Tack, tack! on the roof of his house,
He gobbles him up as a cat does a mouse.

This theme of carrying its house on its back runs through so many of the snail verses that it grows tedious. Surely every author cannot have imagined that he was the originator of this whimsicality! The Fool tells King Lear, "I can tell why a Snaile has a house." Writes John Donne (1663):

And seeing the snaile, which every where doth rome,
Carrying his owne house still, still is at home.

Wordsworth (Liberty) in one of his less inspired moments perpetrated:

The beetle loves his unpretending track,
The snail the house he carries on his back;
The far-fetched worm with pleasure would disown
The bed we give him, though of softest down;
A noble instinct.

So many minor versifiers have followed these masters that one longs for a penal injunction against it. This recurrent drollery goes back over 2700 years to Hesiod, who in "Works and Days" nicknamed the snail "house-carrier" (phereoikos):

The House-bearer, from his winter quarters
Roused by Pleione’s gentle daughters,
Ascends the plants. These vernal days
Indolent hinds must mend their ways;
The grape-vines should have all been hoed;
Sharpen your sickles, take the road.


Originally published by A.E. Ellis in Conchologist’s Newsletter 55, Dec. 1975, pp.464-466