Good morning/afternoon/evening, everyone! I am delighted (and somewhat overawed) to be your host here today. It’s my very first time on this side of the bar but I’ve been dropping in at the dVerse Poets Pub whenever I could over the past 18 months. I’ve learnt so much from your prompts, poetics, poems and ‘pinions (see what I did there? Couldn’t find a fourth ‘p’ though for comments).
Today is the 1st of April, April Fools Day, which here in France means only one thing: Poisson d’avril. It is celebrated with a cut-out of a fish to be stuck on the unsuspecting victim’s back. And this got me thinking about all the other animals we like to use in our art, stories and poetry. From the very earliest cave paintings, animals have played such an important part in our development (and differentiation) as humans.
Sometimes we perceive animals as eminently positive: symbols of strength or grandeur, compassion or mercy, godliness or spirituality. The lion Aslan in the Narnia stories, the Lamb in the poetry of William Blake, Anubis the god with the head of a jackal in Ancient Egypt guiding the recently dead are a few examples which come to mind.
Quite often, however, the animals represent something more malevolent and threatening. They don’t even need to be hairy spiders, slithering snakes or black cats to fill us with unease. There is a menace there, the sense of the ‘other’, of something far wilder and freer than we could ever be, perhaps.
William Blake’s famous poem ‘The Tyger’ is a companion piece to his Lamb poem and in fact expresses that dawning understanding that ‘He who made the Lamb made Thee’. But just listen to that wonderful sense of feline prowling and menace which he achieves through alliteration, repeated interrogation, trochaic tetrameter and imperfect rhyme in the first stanza. The atmosphere of the poem is perfectly captured in the painting by Henri (Le Douanier) Rousseau.
Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies.
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand, dare seize the fire?
The endless fascination and beauty of animals, which coexist with their ruthlessness and cruelty, are also described in Geoffrey Brock’s poem ‘The Beautiful Animal’, in which the (unnamed) animal is an extended metaphor for the never straightforward path of love:
By the time I recalled that it is also
terrifying, we had gone too far into
the charmed woods to return.
But there are other, more light-hearted aspects to animals. Even great sombre poets like T. S. Eliot succumbed to their charm. In his delightful volume ‘Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats’, he demonstrates perfect understanding of cats just being themselves, with no heavy symbolism at all.
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