Saturday, November 21, 2015

988. The Lay Of The Trilobite - May Kendall

Poem of the week: The Lay of the Trilobite by May Kendall
A Victorian satire on evolutionary theory cleverly subverts, through a covert feminist argument, Darwinist ideas about the subjugation of women

Tuesday 27 October 2015 06.07 EDT

A mountain’s giddy height I sought,
Because I could not find
Sufficient vague and mighty thought
To fill my mighty mind;
And as I wandered ill at ease,
There chanced upon my sight
A native of Silurian seas,
An ancient Trilobite.
So calm, so peacefully he lay,
I watched him even with tears:
I thought of Monads far away
In the forgotten years.
How wonderful it seemed and right,
The providential plan,
That he should be a Trilobite,
And I should be a Man!
And then, quite natural and free
Out of his rocky bed,
That Trilobite he spoke to me
And this is what he said:
‘I don’t know how the thing was done,
Although I cannot doubt it;
But Huxley – he if anyone
Can tell you all about it;

How all your faiths are ghosts and dreams,
How in the silent sea
Your ancestors were Monotremes –
Whatever these may be;
How you evolved your shining lights
Of wisdom and perfection
From Jelly-Fish and Trilobites
By Natural Selection.
‘You’ve Kant to make your brains go round,
Hegel you have to clear them,
You’ve Mr Browning to confound,
And Mr Punch to cheer them!
The native of an alien land
You call a man and brother,
And greet with hymn-book in one hand
And pistol in the other!
‘You’ve Politics to make you fight
As if you were possessed:
You’ve cannon and you’ve dynamite
To give the nations rest:
The side that makes the loudest din
Is surest to be right,
And oh, a pretty fix you’re in!’
Remarked the Trilobite.
‘But gentle, stupid, free from woe
I lived among my nation,
I didn’t care – I didn’t know
That I was a Crustacean.*
I didn’t grumble, didn’t steal,
I never took to rhyme:
Salt water was my frugal meal,
And carbonate of lime.’
Reluctantly I turned away,
No other word he said;
An ancient Trilobite, he lay
Within his rocky bed.
I did not answer him, for that
Would have annoyed my pride:
I merely bowed, and raised my hat,
But in my heart I cried: –
‘I wish our brains were not so good,
I wish our skulls were thicker,
I wish that Evolution could
Have stopped a little quicker;
For oh, it was a happy plight,
Of liberty and ease,
To be a simple Trilobite

In the Silurian seas!’

Comonteretary by Carol Robbins
  • He was not a Crustacean. He has since discovered he was an Arachnid, or something similar. But he says it does not matter. He says they told him wrong once, and they may again.
May Kendall was born Emma Goldworth Kendall in Bridlington, Yorkshire, in 1864. Little is known about her education; on the evidence of her work, it was a solid one. Her father was a Methodist minister, and Kendall’s interest in the sciences never deflected her from her religious convictions and sense of life as sacred. She was founder member of the York Fabian Society and collaborated with Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree on radical sociological works in the early 20th century, by which time she had abandoned poetry and fiction. Her later years were sad: it’s thought that she suffered from senile dementia. She died in an institution in 1943, and is buried in York, the city where she spent the greater part of her life.
The Lay of the Trilobite was first printed in Punch magazine in January 1885, one of an occasional series of unsigned comic “lays”. By then, Kendall had published her first novel, That Very Mab, in collaboration with Andrew Lang, and she had contributed work to Lang’s column in Longman’s Magazine. As a poet, she was not a lone female voice: Mathilde Blind, Emily Pfeiffer and Constance Naden, for example, were similarly emancipated New Women engaged in challenging received ideas.
Kendall’s tetrameters are technically assured, her rhymes sharp-witted, if not, as satire, steel-tipped. The scientific accuracy is imperfect, as she was later to acknowledge, at least with regard to her classification of the trilobite. Reprinting the Lay in the “Science” section of her 1887 debut collection, Dreams to Sell, she added a comic footnote correcting the classification from crustacean to “Arachnid, or something similar”. In fact, trilobites are arthropods.
An informative essay by John Holmes, The Lay of the Trilobite: Rereading May Kendall includes a reproduction of the Punch cartoon accompanying the poem, and points out a passing resemblance of the caricatured scientist to Sir Richard Owen. Owen, mostly remembered now for establishing London’s Natural History Museum, was a brilliant palaeontologist, and an unscrupulous and fiercely ambitious man. Concerning evolution, he held that dominant forms arose as a result of specific acts of creation, the “providential plan” which Kendall mentions in the sixth line of her second stanza. Owen opposed Darwin’s theory of natural selection, and he and the staunch Darwinian Thomas Henry Huxley (see stanza 3) were deeply entrenched enemies.
Kendall’s own argument with evolutionary theory was essentially an argument with Social Darwinism. The latter legitimised existing power structures, and thus colluded with the subjugation of women. Darwin himself considered women to be deficient in their abilities for “deep thought, reasoning or imagination, or merely the use of the senses or hands”.
Although Kendall does not propose an overtly feminist critique of evolutionary science in the poem – nor would the conservative Punch have accepted it for publication if she had – such a critique is strongly hinted, and borne out by other poems of hers, such as Woman’s Future. From the Lay’s first line, her part-scientist, part-philosopher protagonist is the butt of teasing, and his pride is brought down, softly but surely, in the denouement. He meets the fossilised trilobite grandly confident in his man-sized brain, having scaled a mountain in search of the sufficiently “vague and mighty thought” required to furnish such a “mighty mind”. The trilobite (looking sufficiently relaxed and indolent in the cartoon to suggest a visual pun on “lay”) at first confirms the mountaineer’s sense of his superior place in the natural order. Thinking “of Monads far away”, he’s moved to tears by the fossil’s mere presence – like a man melted by the charms of a deferential woman, perhaps. And then, the trilobite speaks.
Kendall’s verses may seem at first to reflect a Victorian tendency to turn science into a branch of fantasy. Many commentators have remarked on the resemblance to Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poems. The latter are more truly subversive and more imaginative than anything Kendall writes. But Kendall’s talking trilobite has an important message to deliver (see especially verses 5 and 6), and an unusually disenchanted view of human achievement to declare. Kendall isn’t subverting serious poetry by writing “nonsense verse”: she’s subverting nonsense verse by making it ask serious questions.
Victorian science was not fully tamed and ordered territory. This was a period when taxonomies were sometimes in flux, and the boundaries between species not always clear cut. Monotremes, for example, had not long since been defined as egg-laying mammals. The Punch cartoon is apparently inaccurate, showing a eurypterid and not a trilobite. Kendall is jocular and casual on territory she knows to be slippery with recent skirmishes. Of course, such an attitude contrasts with the way in which modern poets approach scientific material. A science-writing poet today would lose a lot of credibility if found to have failed to get her Googled references properly checked against the latest research.
What Kendall takes seriously is the more ambitious cross-referencing in which scientific reasoning engages with social improvement. The value of evolution is challenged by the trilobite-poet because mankind’s advances have produced many terrible results. Philosophy is seen as a kind of Teutonic game, and aesthetics fares no better: Kendall’s quip about Browning reflects the general puzzlement of Victorian readers with his poetry. Verse itself becomes a subject of scepticism when the trilobite affirms that, among his modest virtues, he “never took to rhyme”.
The scientist bows and tips his hat as he takes his leave of the friendly fossil, too proud to agree with him openly, but secretly undermined. In the last stanza we learn that, thoroughly persuaded, he, too, wishes that “Evolution could/ Have stopped a little quicker”. It’s perhaps a rather sentimental conclusion, and one unlikely to have been shared by Kendall herself. In Woman’s Future, she evokes mountains and mightiness of her own, declaring “Our talents shall rise in a mighty crescendo,/ We trust Evolution to make us amends!” Her tone is partly ironical, of course, but in the same poem she earnestly chides women for wasting their energies on trivia. Her sense of magnificent possibilities for human development is typically offset by the honest realism of a pragmatic Yorkshirewoman. It’s not that she denies the possibility of further human evolution: she sees it both as thoroughly desirable and thoroughly difficult of attainment. And so May Kendall will lay aside her pen, as she hopes her sisters will abandon their “woolwork” and “patchwork”. There’s more serious graft needed if a clergyman’s brilliant daughter is to help repair the fallen world.

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