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David Perkins, Romanticism and Animal Rights & Christine Kenyon-Jones, Kindred Brutes: Animals in Romantic-Period Writing

Sunday, April 20, 2008 - 10:35
David Perkins, Romanticism and Animal Rights. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Cambridge Studies in Romanticism, no. 58. xvi + 210pp. $95.00 (Hdbk; ISBN-10: 0-521-82941-0; ISBN-13: 978-0-521-82941-0); $37.99 (Pbk.; ISBN-13: 978-0-521-04598-8).
Christine Kenyon-Jones, Kindred Brutes: Animals in Romantic-Period Writing. Aldershot, England: Ashgate Publishing, 2001. The Nineteenth-Century Series. viii + 229pp; illus. (10 halftones). $99.95. (Hdbk: ISBN: 0-7546-0332-6).

Reviewed by
Janelle A. Schwartz
Loyola University, New Orleans

In A Memoir of Thomas Bewick by Himself, we are told that the Farmer (well-known to the 12-year-old Bewick), proposing to have "a bit more sport" with a captured hare, broke "one of its legs, and then again [set] the poor Animal off, a little before the Dogs" (qtd. in RR 15). Thinking that the Farmer would help to save the life of the hapless hare, the young Bewick gave the animal into what he thought would be beneficent hands. To his surprise, the Farmer's intervention served only to exacerbate the already brutal scene of the fox hunt. This vignette encapsulates the key figures and concepts in David Perkins' Romanticism and Animal Rights and Christine Kenyon-Jones' Kindred Brutes: Animals in Romantic-Period Writing; both texts present comprehensive, sustained studies of how and why animals appeared in the literature of the Romantic era. Seeking to draw attention to contemporary and modern ecological concerns, both Perkins and Kenyon-Jones couch their arguments in the multitude of discourses about animals in the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. Ranging from the didacticism of children's literature and the practice of keeping pets to contemporary debates surrounding hunting and vegetarianism, as well as parliamentary debates on the rights of animals and the encyclopaedic texts produced on the subject, these discourses not only highlight the presence of animals in English culture, but they also demonstrate the inextricable link between animals and humans. Romanticism and Animal Rights and Kindred Brutes, therefore, reveal the essential, and often times varied, role of the animal to aid in an understanding of the human.

In ways similar to Harriet Ritvo's provocative book, The Platypus and the Mermaid, Perkins and Kenyon-Jones orient themselves within "a large and complex society" in order to demonstrate how "animals performed many different functions and stood (or flew or swam) in relation to many different groups of people" (Ritvo xii). Whereas Ritvo focuses her study around those exotic and aberrant animals feverishly discovered and collected by Victorian society, Perkins and Kenyon-Jones concentrate on the everyday animals that were underfoot, under the gun, in the pasture, in the street, or on the dinner plate of a slightly earlier era. Such animals readily represent what Perkins deems the obvious subjects "in the campaign for humanity to animals" (115), as well as what Kenyon-Jones states is the "central place in any system which seeks to relate humans to the natural environment" (141). As a result, both Romanticism and Animal Rights and Kindred Brutes complicate accepted approaches to animals and the natural environment by looking closely at the poetry and prose written in and about the familiar setting of eighteenth and early-nineteenth century life.

"When a child asks, 'What were flies made for?' her father replies, 'Suppose a fly capable of thinking, would he not be equally puzzled to find out what men were good for?'" (qtd. in Perkins 6). According to Perkins, this telling exchange between father and daughter, fly and humanity, reveals a problematic, though perhaps necessary, closing of the perspectival gap between human- and animal-kind. Asserting that "sympathy might tend to deprive humans of special importance and status among the creatures" (6), Perkins alerts us to three competing modes of the argument surrounding animal rights during the second half of the eighteenth century (which he develops at length in his second chapter, "Grounds of argument"). On the one hand, animals are distinct from humans. They are subordinated to humans through their being thought of as property and, in turn, treated with brutality. On the other hand, discussions of "animal rights" could allow for the elision of just such a distinction. If animals are believed to have natural rights, which would lead inevitably to legal rights, then humankind loses its "special importance" in God's created system of existence. In sympathy with animals, humans in turn reveal their own misanthropy, and therefore emphasize the Romantic conception of ideal nature against that of civilized society (Perkins 4). Meanwhile, however, there were also those who rejected this leveling system on the grounds that "the creatures themselves could not be inflamed by such agitation" (Perkins 43). In other words, because animals could not create the polemics of humans, they became the model figures from which humans should learn moral rectitude.

With two introductory chapters, Perkins effectively contextualizes his argument by describing the changes in attitude surrounding animals that led up to the establishment of The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in 1824. This historical account grounds the close readings that follow in the remaining six chapters within the social, cultural and political issues at stake in the development of animal rights. His straightforward and amusing prose serves up insightful new perspectives on such old favorites as Cowper's The Task and Coleridge's "To a Young Ass," while also presenting inventive analyses on several texts outside the established, though clearly unsettled, canon, including Clare's badger sonnets. Perkins' revealing discussion of Clare ultimately functions to call attention to the fact that "the animal is just a metaphor, with little character or life of its own that the poet values" (147). Animals did (and do) indeed suffer from "the usual, universal basis of emotional reactions to animals; we react to what we have attributed" (Perkins 9). In accordance with this type of anthropomorphism, Perkins' close textual analyses are woven together with their historical and biographical significances so that Romanticism and Animal Rights consistently uncovers the strength of the poetic voice—albeit a voice with multiple, oftentimes dissenting perspectives—to reflect and to influence public opinion. And although there is some repetition of the historical and biographical information from chapter to chapter, this repetition helps to emphasize the fluctuating perspectives between the individual works of Romantic poetry.

Proposing a look at the "newly different" and "newly similar" attributes of animals in Romantic-period writing, Kenyon-Jones approaches her topic by casting a wide net. As a dense, carefully-researched catalogue of animals, Kindred Brutes combines non-literary discourses with the literary in order to explicate not only the issue of animal rights, but questions of gender and the body, of consumption, of friendship and liberty, and of zoology, ecology and variable conceptions of Nature. Moving back and forth between Bacon and Byron, Descartes and Darwin, Montaigne and Malthus, Pliny and Pope, and so on, Kenyon-Jones accounts for the prodigious numbers of animal references found before, within and after the Romantic era.

Kindred Brutes begins with a discussion of the living sentiment given to one's own deceased pet—Byron's "Inscription on the Monument of a Newfoundland Dog." In Chapter One, "Animals Dead and Alive: Pets, Politics and Poetry in the Romantic Period," Kenyon-Jones presents a kind of literature review threaded through with her reading of Byron's "Inscription." As a testament to the theriophilic tradition, this inscription is said to locate discussions of the animal simultaneously inside and outside those of the human, and within and without life itself. Thus, the "Inscription" gives to Byron's dog, Boatswain, the ability "to remind us of our kinship [to it]" while also providing a contrast between "human folly" and "animals' instinctive wisdom" (Kenyon-Jones 12). Here, as happens later within Perkins' text, Kenyon-Jones immediately subverts the idea that animals are inferior to humans—through satire and slight irony—and so gives to the animals the didactic power needed to effectively transform human perception not only towards animals, but towards fellow human beings as well. There is a strong link, claims Kenyon-Jones, between the "lower" ranks of humankind, such as slaves, women, and other oppressed groups, and the status of the animal (205). Thus, while it was during the Romantic period that modern discussions of kindness towards animals for animals' sake began to replace the human-centered use of animals, an appeal for a sympathetic humanity towards itself also began to take root. Here both Perkins and Kenyon-Jones agree that representations of the animal call for egalitarian practices from human to human. Both authors fall prey themselves, therefore, to the Romantic "turning inward," which allows that the animal might be but the reflector needed to reveal ourselves to ourselves. The animal becomes yet another instrument with which to gain an understanding of the Romantic subject.

While Kindred Brutes provides an important, source-oriented foundation for the burgeoning scholarship on animals in Romanticism, its insistence on variety and scope limits Kenyon-Jones' critical engagement with her chosen texts. Her meticulously contextualized discussions of key works stop just short of the detailed analyses that appear in Perkins' text. Instead, Kenyon-Jones continually draws our attention to the works of Coleridge, Wordsworth, Shelley and (particularly) Byron in an attempt to formulate a locus around which all of her other sources can orient. And while she successfully illustrates a vast field of textual examples with which to approach animals in Romantic (as well as in some Victorian) writing, her consistent return to the above-mentioned authors makes the text itself appear anxious about this claimed focus, rather than comfortable with its potentially more revealing wanderings.

Similar to Perkins' claim for the erasure of the actual animal in favor of its figurative strength, Kenyon-Jones maintains that "in a metaphorical, spiritual or feeling-based form . . . human/animal kinship" lends itself to "much current thinking about human behavior," but her concession that this perception "adds greatly to the value placed on all animals" is an important inversion left out of Perkins' text (206). Romanticism and Animal Rights curiously evades the implication of a heightened animal value that might arise from a strong kinship between animals and humans. Although Perkins does articulate the idea that the exploitation of animals occurs beyond the immediacy of their use (or abuse), and in the continued displacement by "whatever social group animals and their treatment are said to figure" (xi), he does not explore fully the ramifications of this idea. He chooses, ironically, to remain largely focused on the human. Kenyon-Jones, however, moves her argument beyond this trap of animal subordination. Kindred Brutes concludes with a brief chapter ("Animals Then and Now") that claims for the twenty-first century's conceptions of the animal a founding ancestor in the Romantic era. While this connection between yesterday and today clearly resonates with current environmental discourse, it is a connection that nevertheless distracts the reader from Kenyon-Jones' significant compilation of "kindred brutes." Romanticism and Animal Rights and Kindred Brutes focus on sentiments towards, as well as the plight and use of, animals at a time when the rights of animals were hotly debated and when humankind was desperately trying to decipher (i.e., to distinguish) its own significance within the Chain of Being. Both texts mark a cultural turning-point, or at least a crucial point of departure, in the consideration of animals and their place in human society and thought—thus making clear that animals truly are "'good to think with.'"