Three first-grade girls harvested earthworms on the playground in the rain. Their contempt for squeamishness pleased me. They giggled at the squirming and slime, and one informed me: “They poop in the ground and help the Earth.” Girls who like worms and have something good to say about poop – where were they when I was six? Every species has a reputation among humans – for toothsomeness, beauty or cuteness, or their opposites, among other reasons. On the positive side, and despite Darwin’s pioneering study, worms have always been judged little more than fish bait. Could we be witnessing the rehabilitation of earthworms? From disgust to environmental heroism in a generation?
In Act IV, Scene 3 of Hamlet, King Claudius asks the prince where Polonius is and Hamlet answers, “At supper.” The king replies, “At supper! Where?” and clever, scheming, insufferable Hamlet says:
“Not where he eats, but where he is eaten: a certain convocation of politic worms are e'en at him. Your worm is your only emperor for diet: we fat all creatures else to fat us, and we fat ourselves for maggots: your fat king and your lean beggar is but variable service, two dishes, but to one table: that's the end.”
Besides reminding me of the Diet of Worms, the passage brings back my senior A.P. English class in high school. A friend (where are you, Jan Harlan?) crafted an analysis of Hamlet based on the assumption that the prince’s problem was portliness. He was obese: “We fat ourselves,” “O, that this too too solid flesh would melt,” etc. True or not, worms and maggots join Hamlet’s catalog of disgust (“In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed”).
Scholars have speculated that Shakespeare drew the worm/emperor image from a line in Montaigne’s “Apology for Raymond Sebond” (translated by Donald Frame):
“Little lice are sufficient to make Sylla give up his dictatorship. The heart and the life of a mighty and triumphant emperor form but the breakfast of a little worm.”
On the playground, the girls know nothing of such things. They just like worms. One of them said, “We don’t want them to drown.”