Saturday, March 08, 2014

`The Most Despised of the Animal and Insect Race'

Our neighbor pointed at an oak branch hanging over the street, thirty feet above our heads: a bird in profile, featureless in the early light. He’d seen it perch and identified it as a hawk holding something in its talons. The bird took off and his cargo in silhouette looked compact, not birdlike, with a skinny tail dangling beneath it. “A rat,” said my neighbor, confirming my hunch. He’s a smoker whose wife forbids him to smoke indoors, and sometimes at night he goes outside for a cigarette and observes the nocturnal maneuvers of our neighboring quadrupeds. I’ve never seen one in our neighborhood but biologists say there’s probably a rat within a hundred yards of every human being, except possibly those on the International Space Station. 

On March 20, 1799, Charles Lamb wrote to Robert Southey, thanking him for sending a copy of “To a Spider,” Southey’s latest poem.  Lamb offers a brisk, generous assessment: “The first three stanzas are delicious; they seem to me a compound of Burns and Old Quarles, the kind of home-strokes, where more is felt than strikes the ear; a terseness, a jocular pathos, which makes one feel in laughter.” He moves on to a brief review of vermin in literature, saying: “I love this sort of poems, that open a new intercourse with the most despised of the animal and insect race.” He urges Southey to write poems “breaking down the partition between us and our `poor earth-born companions.’” 

“…I would persuade you, if I could (I am in earnest), to commence a series of these animals' poems, which might have a tendency to rescue some poor creatures from the antipathy of mankind. Some thoughts came 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.” 

This is quintessential Lamb, running off with a fancy, riffing on pure improvisation. I can imagine readers who find him writing insufferably whimsical. Such people likewise can’t abide Laurel and Hardy, and Jacques Tati. Lamb continues: 

“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.”

1 comment:

The Sanity Inspector said...

It costs me never a stab nor squirm
To tread by chance upon a worm.
'Aha, my little dear,' I say,
'Your clan will pay me back one day.'
-- Dorothy Parker