Content warning: discussion of sexual assault
It is no surprise that John Gray, a Catholic priest, would include a subtil serpent in his poetry. In Gray’s poem “The Vines,” there is a snake who facilitates the immoral sexual activities of personified plants; he does this by using words and social position to create a stupefying environment. This leaves the feminine plants prone sexual predation. In this way, the poem depicts and condemns rape and the people who let it happen.
The first characters introduced are Bramble and Woodbine, a newly married couple. Bramble “clutches for his bride, / Lately she was by his side,” implying a dazed bedroom scene, as if the Bramble is groping through his bed half asleep. The second part of the quotation may be a paraphrase of Bramble’s words, like he is mumbling and looking for the Woodbine. The next line introduces Woodbine as having “gummy hands.” It may be a criticism from Bramble, that Woodbine sticks to other things and is unfaithful to him. However, it could also be the speaker undercutting Bramble’s expectation that Woodbine is sexually available to him. She is clinging to anything she can to get away from the Bramble.
Stanza four has two of the same lines as the first, those being “Bramble clutches for his bride” and “Woodbine, with her gummy hands,” which establish a return to the scene after stanzas two and three. Now, Bramble has found Woodbine, and “All his horny claws expands; / She has withered in his grasp.” The word “horny” carries its modern meaning of “lecherous.” The word “claws” makes this image explicitly menacing. The peculiar choice to use an antiquated plural (“claws expands” instead of “claws expand”) works to posit Bramble as old, ugly, lecherous, and violent. The Woodbine cannot get away, but why?
Her gummy hands may be one reason. But before this scene, other scenes of languid violence littered this picture. Something terrible has happened to “painted ivy”; she is “stretched upon the bank, all torn, / Sinewy though she be.” The combination of her being “painted” and “torn” evoke a pretty woman, maybe even a prostitute, brutalized and left “stretched” in a vulnerable position. This was once a strong woman, however, as she is “sinewy.” This confirms that the “winter” has made a change to these plants, possibly including the Woodbine. Convolvuluses are “love-lorn” flowers that “cease to creep” as they did before. Flowers are associated with female genitalia and youth. Such a verb as “creep” implies furtivity. I posit that the convolvuluses are young girls who are frightened and saddened by what they see has happened to the ivy, as if they had crept closer to see.
These plant characters are in a stupor, unable to stop themselves or others from acting on their impulses. But let us not assume that this is an organic phenomenon. I propose that the snake has dictated this condition. The poem starts with a quotation from an unnamed speaker: “have you seen the listening snake?” The snake who dictates when winter is over is one that no one has seen, at least not lately. They may even doubt if he is real. The other characters must know that he is their watchman, because they trust his authority about when the dawn is coming, although he is underground. This act of “listening,” and telling plants to “listen” as he does in the last stanza, is his way of denying what is happening to the female plants. Someone asks “who tells dawning,” and he continues stalling, saying “listen, soon.” I am watching, he says, trust me. He will do this until the “day burst winter’s bands” and brings the plants back to full consciousness. In this stanza, it says the snake “listens for the dawn of day,” but in the last stanza he moves the time to the afternoon. He is doing this is in self-preservation. He is “listening death away,” meaning his life is being sustained by making these heinous things happen. If we interpret “death” as the French “La Petite Mort,” he is also observing the sex out of existence.
The “half-born tendrils” in the last line may be the offspring of these plant unions. They, too, are grasping, just like their father “clutche[d] for his bride.” The evil done here creates more evil. This serpent is a facilitator only truly evil sex: rape.