Animals in poetry

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Tim Morton’s blog entries on Coleridge’s Rime have me thinking about animals and representation. Does an animal depiction in a fable or allegory retain some trace of its animal referent-sign’s animality? Or, put differently, can animals be used in such a way that their animal nature is eradicated and they become fable as such? Can their materiality, that sublime ‘other side’ of the metaphorical equation, be supplanted by cultural reference—reference toward a human moral, political dispute, event, and so on? What then of Akira Lippit’s intriguing Freudian notion of “animetaphor”:

The animal world opens up behind the dreamwork, establishing a kind of originary
topography shared by human beings and animals. . . . [E]very dreamer carries the trace of animality. . . . [Moreover, o]ne might posit provisionally that the animal functions not only as an exemplary metaphor but, within the scope of rhetorical language, as a kind of originary metaphor. One finds a fantastic transversality at work between the animal and the metaphor—the animal is already a metaphor, the metaphor an animal. (1112-13)

All the more reason to question whether fabulous animals, the animals of fable, ballad, parable, and axiom, are non-animal or only incidentally this or that species or genus. One doesn’t want to confuse representation with reality, to be sure. But we also want to be careful about too quickly determining just what that “reality” or referent is or can be, perhaps especially when the metaphor or other figure being used is an animal. Can such a figure ever be univocal?

Take, for instance (and even as an instance sine qua non and ne plus ultra), Coleridge’s “The Raven,” a poem I plan to write on at some length later—and to blog about briefly and provisionally here and now.

In “Coleridge's ‘The Raven’ and the Forging of Radicalism,” Michael Wiley sagely argues that Coleridge faux-Spenserian fable “comments upon the workings of literary forgery,” inspired in large part by the contemporary forgery of the Shakespeare Papers. (Wiley also points out that Coleridge rather explicitly associates his Rime with the Chatterton and Macpherson forgeries). According to Wiley,
“The Raven,” with the letter to the editor intact—and with Coleridge's name again absent in the Morning Post publication—tells a metatextual joke, though in service of a serious seditious point. The text says of itself: this is a forgery, which speaks dangerously about present political and social issues in the guise of speaking about the Spenserian past, and which treats language and authors in the ways that actual forgeries do. (808-9)
Wiley concludes that Coleridge’s fable demonstrates the manner in which authors and readers could be in on the joke—a clear joke—and that a poem that ostensibly claims to be about the Spenserian past “nonetheless might be about the late-eighteenth-century present—that the displacement, while protecting the writer, would fool no one” (809).

It’s worth quoting the poem in its entirety, so we can all be on the same page. First the curiously animal-related letter to the editor that preface the poem in the Morning Post:

I am not absolutely certain that the following Poem was written by EDMUND
SPENSER, and found by an angler, buried in a fishing-box—
“Under the foot of Mole, that mountain hoar,
“Mid the green alders, by the Mulla's shore.”
But a learned Antiquarian of my acquaintance has given it as his opinion, that it resembles SPENSER's minor Poems as nearly as Vortigern and Rowena the Tragedies of WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE. (quoted in Wiley, 803)
The relevance to current forgeries, and to the shared “joke,” seems clear given the mention of the Shakespeare Papers (Vortigern and Rowena) and the sly, antiquarian-informed suggestion of the text being by Spenser—or rather, as much resembling that bard’s “minor Poems” as Vortigern resembles any of Shakespeare’s tragedies. But why the provenance of an angler’s “fishing-box”? Why situate the poem there, amid the hooks and other equipment used to lure and catch not readers (as such) but fish? Certainly we might now see the poem itself as a bit of fishing, with its barbs and hooks clearly evident. But is this site related not just to fishers of men (so to speak) but to those animals, especially given the text’s own focus, or seeming focus, on a pair of English birds rather than bards?

Underneath an old oak tree
There was of swine a huge company
That grunted as they crunched the mast:
For that was ripe, and fell full fast.
Then they trotted away, for the wind grew high:
One acorn they left, and no more might you spy.
Next came a Raven, that liked not such folly:
He belonged, they did say, to the witch Melancholy!
Blacker was he than blackest jet,
Flew low in the rain, and his feathers not wet.
He picked up the acorn and buried it straight
By the side of a river both deep and great.

Where then did the Raven Go?
He went high and low,

Over hill, over dale, did the black Raven go.

Many Autumns, many Springs
Travelled he with wandering wings:
Many summers, many Winters—
I can't tell half his adventures.

At length he came back, and with him a She
And the acorn was grown to a tall oak tree.
They built them a nest in the topmost bough,
And young ones they had, and were happy enow.
But soon came a Woodman in leathern guise,
His brow, like a pent-house, hung over his eyes.
He'd an axe in his hand, not a word he spoke,
But with many a hem! and a sturdy stroke,
At length he brought down the poor Raven's own oak.
His young ones were killed; for they could not depart,
And their mother did die of a broken heart.

The boughs from the trunk the woodman did sever;
And they floated it down on the course of the river.
They sawed it in planks, and its bark they did strip,
And with this tree and others they made a good ship.
The ship, it was launched; but in sight of the land
Such a storm there did rise as no ship would withstand.
It bulged on a rock, and the waves rush'd in fast;
Round and round flew the Raven, and cawed to the blast.
He heard the last shriek of the perishing souls--
See! see! o'er the topmast the mad water rolls!

Right glad was the Raven, and off he went fleet,

And Death riding home on a cloud he did meet,
And he thank'd him again and again for this treat:

They had taken his all, and REVENGE IT WAS SWEET!

What a finale! Wiley hears Spenserian echoes in the opening description of the oak, and an obvious Burkean ring to the swine (Burke’s “swinish multitude”). Thereby, the oak becomes a symbol of Britain, its navy, its monarchy (witness Charles II’s Order of the Royal Oak). Yet, as Wiley confesses, the poem’s other signs, animal as well as human, “are less definitely attributed,” including the curious reference to a “fox,” deciphered by Carl Woodring as a direct political allusion to Charles James Fox. Hence, Wiley focuses instead upon the raven’s “general, public role” in political fables of the century, from “Tale of the Raven and the Blackbird” (1715) to the “Raven's Proclamation” (1746).

But while the raven, like the bulldog and the oak, had a “public role”—as indeed did exotic animals like the tiger (see here Ashton Nichols’s “An Empire of Exotic Nature” )—what about the raven as an animal deserving of or exceeding such casting and acting? What in the bird’s perceived ‘nature’ (and its natural history) makes it more or less suitable for such satire or fable? And what sort of animal, animetaphorical meaning, if one can put matters that way, does this bird present in Coleridge’s poem, akin (distantly akin, twice removed) to the albatross in the contemporary Rime? Here’s a bird with an attitude, at least! Does the raven of this poem mean only what Wiley, Woodring, and other readers have astutely discovered in terms of the era’s politics? Would we err in seeing this poem’s avian figure as in any way a relative of the poet’s albatross or nightingale? In my next blog I’ll try to explore this question, hopefully with some help from kind readers and fellow bloggers.


Akira Mizuta Lippit, “Magnetic Animal: Derrida, Wildlife, Animetaphor,” MLN 113 (1998): 1111-25. See also Lippit’s Electric Animal: Toward a Rhetoric of Wildlife (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2000).

Michael Wiley, “Coleridge's ‘The Raven’ and the Forging of Radicalism,” SEL 43 (2003) 799-813.

Ashton Nichols, “An Empire of Exotic Nature: Blake’s Botanic and Zoomorphic Imagery,” The Reception of Blake in the Orient, ed. Steve Clark and Masashi Suzuki (New York: Continuum, 2006), 121-33. Blake’s visionary distrust of the natural (seemingly external) world did not prevent him from “celebrat[ing] its physical beauty, its sensuous details and its crucial role in our awareness of our human place in the cosmos” (132).