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John Greenleaf Whittier (1807–1892). The Poetical Works in Four Volumes. 1892.

Narrative and Legendary Poems

The Double-Headed Snake of Newbury

  • “Concerning ye Amphisbæna, as soon as I received your commands, I made diligent inquiry:… he assures me yt it had really two heads, one at each end; two mouths, two stings or tongues.”—REV. CHRISTOPHER TOPPAN to COTTON MATHER.

  • FAR away in the twilight time

    Of every people, in every clime,

    Dragons and griffins and monsters dire,

    Born of water, and air, and fire,

    Or nursed, like the Python, in the mud

    And ooze of the old Deucalion flood,

    Crawl and wriggle and foam with rage,

    Through dusk tradition and ballad age.

    So from the childhood of Newbury town

    And its time of fable the tale comes down

    Of a terror which haunted bush and brake,

    The Amphisbæna, the Double Snake!

    Thou who makest the tale thy mirth,

    Consider that strip of Christian earth

    On the desolate shore of a sailless sea,

    Full of terror and mystery,

    Half redeemed from the evil hold

    Of the wood so dreary, and dark, and old,

    Which drank with its lips of leaves the dew

    When Time was young, and the world was new,

    And wove its shadows with sun and moon,

    Ere the stones of Cheops were squared and hewn.

    Think of the sea’s dread monotone,

    Of the mournful wail from the pine-wood blown,

    Of the strange, vast splendors that lit the North,

    Of the troubled throes of the quaking earth,

    And the dismal tales the Indian told,

    Till the settler’s heart at his hearth grew cold,

    And he shrank from the tawny wizard boasts,

    And the hovering shadows seemed full of ghosts,

    And above, below, and on every side,

    The fear of his creed seemed verified;—

    And think, if his lot were now thine own,

    To grope with terrors nor named nor known,

    How laxer muscle and weaker nerve

    And a feebler faith thy need might serve;

    And own to thyself the wonder more

    That the snake had two heads, and not a score!

    Whether he lurked in the Oldtown fen

    Or the gray earth-flax of the Devil’s Den,

    Or swam in the wooded Artichoke,

    Or coiled by the Northman’s Written Rock,

    Nothing on record is left to show;

    Only the fact that he lived, we know,

    And left the cast of a double head

    In the scaly mask which he yearly shed.

    For he carried a head where his tail should be,

    And the two, of course, could never agree,

    But wriggled about with main and might,

    Now to the left and now to the right;

    Pulling and twisting this way and that,

    Neither knew what the other was at.

    A snake with two heads, lurking so near!

    Judge of the wonder, guess at the fear!

    Think what ancient gossips might say,

    Shaking their heads in their dreary way,

    Between the meetings on Sabbath-day!

    How urchins, searching at day’s decline

    The Common Pasture for sheep or kine,

    The terrible double-ganger heard

    In leafy rustle or whir of bird!

    Think what a zest it gave to the sport,

    In berry-time, of the younger sort,

    As over pastures blackberry-twined,

    Reuben and Dorothy lagged behind,

    And closer and closer, for fear of harm,

    The maiden clung to her lover’s arm;

    And how the spark, who was forced to stay,

    By his sweetheart’s fears, till the break of day,

    Thanked the snake for the fond delay!

    Far and wide the tale was told,

    Like a snowball growing while it rolled.

    The nurse hushed with it the baby’s cry;

    And it served, in the worthy minister’s eye,

    To paint the primitive serpent by.

    Cotton Mather came galloping down

    All the way to Newbury town,

    With his eyes agog and his ears set wide,

    And his marvellous inkhorn at his side;

    Stirring the while in the shallow pool

    Of his brains for the lore he learned at school,

    To garnish the story, with here a streak

    Of Latin, and there another of Greek:

    And the tales he heard and the notes he took,

    Behold! are they not in his Wonder-Book?

    Stories, like dragons, are hard to kill.

    If the snake does not, the tale runs still

    In Byfield Meadows, on Pipestave Hill.

    And still, whenever husband and wife

    Publish the shame of their daily strife,

    And, with mad cross-purpose, tug and strain

    At either end of the marriage-chain,

    The gossips say, with a knowing shake

    Of their gray heads, “Look at the Double Snake!

    One in body and two in will,

    The Amphisbæna is living still!”