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  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: January 2018

1 - A Parliament of Monsters: Romantic Nonhumans and Victorian Erasure

Summary

All out-o'th’-way, far-fetched, perverted things,

All freaks of Nature, all Promethean thoughts

Of man; his dullness, madness, and their feats,

All jumbled up together, to compose

A Parliament of Monsters. Tents and Booths,

Meanwhile, as if the whole were one vast mill,

Are vomiting, receiving, on all sides,

Men, Women, three-years’ Children, Babes in arms.

Oh blank confusion! True epitome

Of what the mighty City is herself

To thousands upon thousands of her Sons,

Living amid the same perpetual whirl

Of trivial objects, melted and reduced

To one identity, by differences

That have no law, no meaning, and no end;

Oppression under which even the highest minds

Must labour, whence the strongest are not free!

An excruciating, vacant ecology and a frustrated human experience dominate works like Mary Shelley's Frankenstein or William Blake's Book of Thel. Anxieties about the trouble with human/nonhuman intercourse also show up in less unnatural figures of animals, inhuman conditions and mass vacancy in works such as Burns's ‘To a Mouse’. And we might say that Samuel Taylor Coleridge's ‘Rime’ and ‘To a Young Ass’ join two poles of nonhuman thought in the period within one oeuvre. Animals and the nonhuman return again and again as targets of thought in British Romantic literature. This incorporation of animals includes domestic and agricultural modes, wilderness motifs, hunting, and meditations on less defined nonhuman modes include the quasi-scientific assemblage of dead body parts in Frankenstein, Coleridge's weird, possibly supernatural mariner, and the inescapable dark spirits of Robert Burns's ‘Tam o’ Shanter’.

Wordsworth and Coleridge craft Lyrical Ballads in 1797 as part of a broad, public social critique of the Poor Laws, and the poems include multiple engagements of animals and other nonhumans. Coleridge's separate poem, ‘To a Young Ass’, is about an abused, labouring animal, and Wordsworth's animals include owls, harts, heifers and many more. Burns and John Clare spend the majority of their poetic lives lamenting enclosure, cultural disruption, and the suffering of birds, badgers and others, and they narrate sentimental and non-sentimental losses of places that seem to ruin things for all critters equally. As David Perkins has noted, Clare writes ‘The Badger’ as bans on badger-baiting, bullbaiting and cockfighting pass thru British Parliament in 1835.