Thursday, April 14, 2011

`I Killed a Rat the Other Day by Punching Him to Pieces'

In a letter dated March 20, 1799, Charles Lamb writes to Robert Southey:

“I love this sort of poems [sic], that open a new intercourse with the most despised of the animal and insect race. I think this vein may be further opened; Peter Pindar hath very prettily apostrophised a fly; Burns hath his mouse and his louse; Coleridge, less successfully, hath made overtures of intimacy to a jackass, therein only following at unresembling distance Sterne and greater Cervantes. Besides these, I know of no other examples of breaking down the partition between us and our `poor earth-born companions.’”

For reasons admirable and dubious, the catalog of poems devoted to “the most despised of the animal and insect race” has grown to library proportions since Lamb’s day. Consider Karl Shapiro’s “The Fly” (“O hideous little bat, the size of snot”), Isaac Rosenberg’s “Louse Hunting,” Marianne Moore’s “The Pangolin” and Robert Lowell’s “Skunk Hour.” Shapiro revels in the fly’s beauty, gifts and disease-ridden habits, a stance hardly imaginable at the birth of Romanticism. The same goes for the subject of Rosenberg’s poem – a commonplace of the trenches of the Western Front as it was for armies in the Age of Napoleon. Moore purposely chooses an exotic unknown to most of us before she chose it. Like much of her menagerie, it’s a veiled self-portrait: “made graceful by adversities, con- / versities.” Lowell slums in his influential, overrated poem. Lamb continues:

“It is sometimes revolting to be put in a track of feeling by other people, not one's own immediate thoughts, else I would persuade you, if I could (I am in earnest), to commence a series of these animal poems, which might have a tendency to rescue some poor creatures from the antipathy of mankind. Some thoughts come across me;—for instance—to a rat, to a toad, to a cockchafer, to a mole—people bake moles alive by a slow oven-fire to cure consumption. Rats are, indeed, the most despised and contemptible parts of God's earth. I killed a rat the other day by punching him to pieces, and feel a weight of blood upon me to this hour. Toads you know are made to fly, and tumble down and crush all to pieces. Cockchafers are old sport; then again to a worm, with an apostrophe to anglers, those patient tyrants, meek inflictors of pangs intolerable, cool devils; to an owl; to all snakes, with an apology for their poison; to a cat in boots or bladders. Your own fancy, if it takes a fancy to these hints, will suggest many more.”

No doubt animal-rights boosters and other sentimentalists have mistaken Lamb’s japes for a PETA-like manifesto. Recall that the best-known of his Essays of Elia is “A Dissertation upon Roast Pig,” and that in a March 8, 1811, letter to his friend John Morgan he proclaims:

“A plate of plain Turtle, another of Turbot, with good roast Beef in the rear, and, as Alderman Curtis says, whoever can’t make a dinner of that ought to be damn’d.”

Also recall that Lamb is constitutionally incapable of maintaining solemnity for longer than three syllables (“Anything awful makes me laugh”). His sense of comedy was congenital, like a mutated gene. Today, a poem about rats would probably be an earnest condemnation of ghetto life. Lamb says, “I killed a rat the other day by punching him to pieces,” and that’s close enough to a poem for me. In fact, I like poems about animals, though good ones are rare. Lamb continues in his letter to Southey:

“A series of such poems, suppose them accompanied with plates descriptive of animal torments, cooks roasting lobsters, fishmongers crimping skates, &c., &c., would take excessively. I will willingly enter into a partnership in the plan with you: I think my heart and soul would go with it too—at least, give it a thought. My plan is but this minute come into my head; but it strikes me instantaneously as something new, good and useful, full of pleasure and full of moral.”

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