We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Moving in with Lucy: women's animal poetry · 10 June 06

Dear Harriet,

Three days ago Caroline began to move in with Lucy (and Rob too). And she made a new blog for herself, Rambling, complete with a South Park picture. In her blog for that day she went on to describe how Lucy reacted to one phase of moving in:

"but the disc changer, once it was taken out, was put aside on the love seat, which is Lucy’s couch. Add that to the fact that i put my faux fur throw on the love seat yesterday, partially because i had no where else to put it, and the rest because i thought Lucy would love it.

and suddenly the upheaval going on around here stopped being a human problem that gave her extra places to hide in the dining room and started to directly affect her sleeping space. suddenly we look up from the floor and the tangle of
wires and see her back all the way arched on the very edge of the arm of the sofa with this look on her face of cat like rage—Move the offending items NOW, her eyes seemed to say. Rob looked her right in the eye and says "Don’t you start spraying!

She jumped down and Tail in the air, marched off to the dining
room to sit in the clear spot and look affronted. Rob dropped what we were doing—it was mostly together at that point, just a few tweaks and then wire clean up before sliding the center back into it’s corner to remove the offending electronic.

I went and got some tuna and fed her a forkful. Then i got her brush and worked her over until you could hear her purring across the house. Finally I pulled out the cat nip and spinkled it all over the pedistal of the cat condo (as i learned the tubular room is called … i guess that makes the top part a balcony) and inside the little round room.

Soon i had a cat lying on top of the balcony-pedistal rolling
over and clawing happily and rob shook his head in wonder. This
morning I came down and she is asleep on the loveseat … not on the pillow she usually sleeps on, but firmly in the middle of the fur

Really, pets are just like their owners. To calm your partner friend after a long day, you must feed him, rub him down, give him some nip, and free up his spot on the couch. For the puddle of fur currently snoring on the loveseat across from me, it is no different."

This fit in with what I had been reading. Yes.

Another perceptive article on women’s writing and poetry: Margaret Anne Doody’s "Sensuousness in the Poetry of Eighteenth-Century Women Poets." It appears in Women’s Poetry in the Enlightenment: The Making of the Canon, 1730-1820, edd. Isobel Armstrong and Virginia Blain. Doody argues that not only do women tend far more to write of small animals, when they do, they identify with the creatures, project an intense bodily libido towards them, and use the metaphors and imagery that result as ways of making statements about themselves as well as larger issues like injustice, cruelty, self-ownership, the relationship of creatures to one another. Margaret Doody suggests intimate sexual feeling could be and was poured out through writing about small animals by women. We are often embarrassed by this. She suggests that partly therefore men keep themselves at a distance from the animals they describe; they will write burlesque or objectify the narrative.

Of course there are exceptions. On ECW and WWTTA I put a poem by Anna Seward, "An Old Cat’s Dying Soliloquy," where she partly identifies with and partly reveals a cat to be a selfish, self-contained, luxuriating amused presence. I know it will not leap out at you immediately that this poem’s content is analogous to Judith Viorst’s wonderful The Tenth Good Thing about Barney (which Caroline and I read together some time after our dog, Llyr died), but the idea behind it is similar (as you will instantly recall mother and child imagine endless cans of tuna for Barney in heaven), with the difference that this cat, also a Lucy (!), regrets her mistress cannot join her.

Anna Seward’s poem is another women’s friendship poem too. "Patton" was her good friend. The origin of the poem is her friend’s beloved cat was about to die.

An Old Cat’s Dying Soliloquy

                 by Anna Seward

Long years beheld me Patton’s mansion grace,
The gentlest, fondest of the feline race;
Before her frisking thro’ the garden glade,
Or at her feet, in quiet slumber, laid;
Prais’d for my glossy back, of tortoise streak,
And the warm smoothness of my snowy neck;
Soft paws, that sheath’d for her the clawing nail;
The shining whisker, and meand’ring tail.
Now feeble age each glazing eye-ball dims,
And pain has stiffen’d these once supple limbs;
Fate of eight lives the forfeit gasp obtains,
And e’en the ninth creeps languid thro’ my veins.

Much, sure, of good the future has in store,
When Lucy basks on Patton’s hearth no more,
In those blest climes where fishes oft forsake
The winding river and the glassy lake;
There as our silent-footed race behold
The spots of crimson and the fins of gold,
Venturing beyond the shielding waves to stray,
They gasp on shelving banks, our easy prey;
While birds unwing’d hop careless o’er the ground,
And the plump mouse incessant trots around,
Near wells of cream, which mortals never skim,
Warm marum creeping round their shallow brim;
Where green valerian tufts, luxuriant spread,
Cleanse the sleek hide, and form the fragrant bed.

Yet, stern dispenser of the final blow,
Before thou lay’st an aged Grimalkin low,
Bend to her last request a gracious ear,
Some days, some few short days to linger here!
So, to the guardian of her earthly weal
Shall softest purs these tender truths reveal:
Ne’er shall thy now expiring Puss forget
To thy kind cares her long-enduring debt;
Nor shall the joys that painless realms decree,
Efface the comforts once bestow’d by thee;

To countless mice thy chicken bones preferr’d,
Thy toast to golden fish and wingless bird:
O’er marum border and valerian bed
Thy Lucy shall decline her moping head;
Sigh that she climbs no more, with grateful glee,
Thy downy sofa and thy cradling knee;
Nay, e’en by wells of cream shall sullen swear,
Since Patton, her lov’d mistress, is not there.


More commonly though, the women feel for the animals and present them more emotionally, sentimentally (if you will). They are stand-ins for themselves as well as presences to love. Three poems, two from the 18th century and a recent one to exemplify how small animals in women’s poetry are treated.

Anna Barbauld wrote this one after watching Joseph Priestley perform experiments (torture and kill) mice with noxious gases:

The Mouse’s Petition

                  by Anna Barbauld

O hear a pensive prisoner’s prayer,
           For liberty that sighs;
And never let thine heart be shut
           Against the wretch’s cries!

For here forlorn and sad I sit,
           Within the wiry grate;
And tremble at the’ approaching morn,
           Which brings impending fate.

If e’er thy breast with freedom glowed,
           And spurned a tyrant’s chain,
Let not thy strong oppressive force
           A free-born mouse detain!

O do not stain with guiltless blood
           Thy hospitable hearth!
Nor triumph that thy wiles betrayed
           A prize so little worth.

The scattered gleanings of a feast
           My frugal meals supply;
But if thine unrelenting heart
           That slender boon deny,

The cheerful light, the vital air,
           Are blessings widely given;
Let Nature’s commoners enjoy
           The common gifts of Heaven.

The well-taught philosophic mind
           To all compassion gives;
Casts round the world an equal eye,
           And feels for all that lives.

If mind,—-as ancient sages taught,
           A never dying flame,
Still shifts through matter’s varying forms,
           In every form the same;

Beware, lest in the worm you crush,
           A brother’s soul you find;
And tremble lest thy luckless hand;
           Dislodge a kindred mind.

Or, if this transient gleam of day
           Be all of life we share,
Let pity plead within thy breast
           That little all to spare.

So may thy hospitable board
           With health and peace be crowned;
And every charm of heartfelt ease
           Beneath thy roof be found.

So when destruction lurks unseen,
           Which men, like mice, may share,
May some kind angel clear thy path,
           And break the hidden snare.


Helen Maria Williams wrote the following sonnet while in prison not knowing whether she would be released or guillotined:

Bird of the Tropic! thou, who lov’st to stray
Where thy long pinions sweep the sultry Line,
Or mark’st the bounds which torrid beams confine
By thy averted course, that shuns the ray
Oblique, enamour’d of sublimer day:
Oft on yon cliff thy folded plumes recline,
And drop those snowy feathers Indians twine,
To crown the warrior’s brow with honours gay.
O’er trackless oceans what impels thy wing?
Does no soft instinct in thy soul prevail?
No sweet affection to thy bosom cling,
And bid thee oft thy absent nest bewail?—-
Yet thou again to that dear spot canst spring,
But I no more my long-lost home shall hail!

                 (first published 1823)

And Anne Stevenson’s hopeful


Surprised by spring,
by the green light fallen like snow
in a single evening,
by hawthorn, blackthorn, willow,
woken again after how many thousand year?
As if there had been no years.

That generous throat is a blackbird’s. Now, a thrush.
And that ribbon flung out,
that silk voice, is a chaffinch’s rush
to his grace-note.
Birds woo, or apportion the innocent air they’re made for.
Whom do they sing for?

Old man by the river
spread out like a cross in the sun
feet bare
and stared at by three grubby children,
you’ve made it again, and yes we’ll inherit a summer.
Always the same green clamouring fells that wakes you.
And you have to start living again when it wakes you.


Just on Stevenson’s poem, each spring I feel good to see the same street musicians reappear in Olde Towne. Oh you made it another year too. Like Candide, the characters survive. Survival is no small thing.

A man in his thirties on a cello and a man in his sixties with a
glass harp (wine goblets of all sizes set up in rows, rubber-banded
to a table, and he blows on the thing with his hands held just so to
make notes). The row of African-American male clappers and crooners.

There are very few women street musicians, or performers and they usually appear with a group of men and do not reappear night after night, week after week, year after year. It’s only a man or men who seem to do this. At least this is what I have observed in NYC and Alexandria, Va.

I have once in a while observed a nervous animal (dog often) terrified of a master. Jim and I were standing near the Potomac, a crowd of people nearby listening to the man on the cello. Suddenly Jim pointed out to me a dog shivering with fear, his back arched, crouched, thin to the point of emaciation. Said Jim that man over there beats that dog. No one seemed to notice but he and then I. I wrote about this on WWTTA; two minutes later two people unsubscribed. How does one protect animals? the powerless, the vulnerable.


Of course there are exceptions. Some men do write this sort of tender animal poetry: Christopher Smart wildly considering his cat Geoffrey and Robert Burns on a wee mousie are writing in this vein Doody explores.

And recently Basil Bunting:

A thrush in the syringa sings.

‘Hunger ruffles my wings, fear,
lust, familiar things.

Death thrusts hard. My sons
by hawk’s beak, by stones,
trusting weak wings
by cat and weasel, die.

Thunder smothers the sky.
From a shaken bush I
list familiar things,
fear, hunger, lust.’

O gay thrush.


I bought a book of Basil Bunting’s poems for Jim one Christmas. He had come across one or two on the Net and was immediately intensely engaged by them.

I’ve yet another article to summarize and exemplify from my reading towards this review of a book on 18th century women’s poetry: women’s faery writing.


Posted by: Ellen

* * *


  1. Why don’t you ask the two women why they unsubscribed? Isn’t it unlikely to have been because of something posted two minutes earlier?
    bob    Jun 11, 12:52pm    #
  2. Ah, Bob, ever the pragmatist! ;-)
    Tatyana    Jun 11, 1:08pm    #
  3. Well, Tatyana, I ran a small magazine for 15 years, and when I alienated people I did find it useful to ask them about it. Alhough my anxiety about getting hurt didn’t always let me do this, when I managed to ask, it usually led to productive insight on both sides.
    bob    Jun 11, 3:06pm    #
  4. Heaven help me if my living depended on not alienating people! I’m afraid it is an unfortunate tendency of mine. I’m generally not even aware of doing it; my husband helpfully informs me when I do.
    Tatyana    Jun 11, 3:35pm    #
  5. It’s an unfortunate tendency of mine, too.
    bob    Jun 11, 3:38pm    #
  6. I do love your comment, Jill. It’s the right one.

    In general, telling someone useless information (which makes them feel bad about themselves and stupid and helpless to boot) is a form of triumphing over them. The argument will be made this repression will help them. That's absurd.

    It puts me in mind of Marianne Dashwood’s reply to Elinor who said she should not have gone with Willoughby to visit Mrs Allen’s house for that could offend Mrs Jenkins. Marianne: we are offending endlessly the fools every day of our lives.

    My view is to have discussed with whoever it was that got off the lists (I knew nothing of them for real) would just have offended more. I’ve tried early in my "list ownership" to email people offlist when they were offended or got off. All I got consistently was further anger

    By-the-way, the bullies on NASSR-l have discovered they can have a field day kicking me for the small truthful paragraph I put on the blog about them. Now I'll tell the other man's name as he is making ugly comments and flinging my name about (repeating it again and again). John Lauritsen. He's homosexual and that's why he argues Shelley is; he shows misogynistic tendencies in his postings about Hemans (ridiculing her point of view and prosody) and this despising of women and their outlook probably helps account for his crank ideas that Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote all _Frankenstein_ and Mary lied throughout her diaries (all the records of her authorship of the novel are made up lies is his contention.)

    I know they would not fling my name about that way were I a man. Underlying this is a violation and shaming of me as a woman.

    Elinor    Jun 13, 6:48am    #
  7. There’s no "right" answer to this. It’s a matter of what you’re comfortable with and what your aims are. There are some real defensive people whom it’s impossible to discuss anything with, but there are others whom you can profitably discuss a conflict with. Sometimes it’s worth trying, especially when they’ve shown good will in the past.
    bob    Jun 13, 12:21pm    #
  8. In this case there is. No listowner or moderator has the right to intrude on anyone else. If you’ve subscribed to a list, you have not offered any right to an invasion of your privacy. Most people do not introduce themselves and there is no reciprocation set up automatically at all. I copied my rule against badgering from Anne Woodley's rules on Janeites (there's a form of such a rule on WMST-l) because it's important to prevent unsolicited and unwanted intrusion.

    Generally speaking advice offered gratuitously (when it’s not asked for or needed or useful) is a means of self-assertion. I’m with Austen in thinking the advice people generally want is validation of what they already what to do or to think.

    Having said that I do like Jim’s advice (which I asked him for): don’t ask the question if you’ve a good idea the answer will give you more sleepless nights.

    The notions of productivity is unjustifiably optimistic. People don't learn the way Bob is suggesting. Read Johnson in the Ramblers on how slowly if at all the imagination can have any individual affect apart from people's real social lives and circumstances and particular memories.

    I like Kevin Berland's comment on his reaction to people unsubscribing from C18-l: he stopped taking attendance several years back. It's true I moderate and he doesn't, but I'm not moderating for the sake of any individual even if the effect is to spare them pain.

    Elinor    Jun 13, 12:32pm    #
  9. I guess that my philosophy about lists is, whoever does the work, gets the say. I find it amusing that the most activity any list gets is when 1)There’s a flame war going on, or 2) people are voting on the next read. I suppose if you were going to be just, the weight your vote has should be proportional to how much you post day to day, relevant to the subjects being covered.

    But .. as my mother always said when I was protesting some injustice being perpetrated against me, "Into each life some rain must fall." If you always try to be scrupulously fair, and never offensive to anyone, well .. therein lies madness.

    Running a list is enough work without trying to find out why each person unsubscribes, unless there would be some way that the question could be put automatically.
    Tatyana    Jun 13, 2:01pm    #
  10. Dear Jill,

    There are lists where such a question is set up. When I’ve gotten one, I’ve never answered it. Most of the time my reason for leaving have little to do with the list (except maybe it’s time-wasting). People might say it was serendipity that these people left the list just as I posted. Diana B has suggested more than once that such things are just occurring together when I've fretted over analogous occurrences.

    I’ve asked other listowners and they say hardly ever does anyone answer such a question. Why should they? Most of the time they don’t know the listowner and why should they reveal themselves for nothing. It's usually just polite or defensive and accusatory.

    As you say, lists get most attention when there’s this vexed and personal antipathy or a kind of ring-side circus watching flaming going on. The insults on NASSR-l have stopped again because I'm not there so there's no fun to be had from sensing someone being humiliated. Also only those involved care and that's very few. Most people don't care about Felicia Hemans, nor take seriously any of the claims about Frankenstein or even know about my blog. Actually most people skim lists and don't pay close attention to what's on them.

    Elinor    Jun 13, 2:07pm    #

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