Tuesday, June 23, 2009


Homo ferox

T.H. White, The Book of Merlyn:
"Homo ferox," continued Merlyn, shaking his head, "that rarity in nature, an animal which will kill for pleasure! There is not a beast in this room who would not scorn to kill, except for a meal. Man affects to feel indignation at the shrike, who keeps a small larder of snails etc. speared on thorns: yet his own well-stocked larder is surrounded by herds of charming creatures like the mooning bullock, and the sheep with its intelligent and sensitive face, who are kept solely in order to be slaughtered on the verge of maturity and devoured by their carnivorous herder, whose teeth are not even designed for those of a carnivore. You should read Lamb's letter to Southey, about baking moles alive, and sport with cockchafers, and cats in bladders, and crimping skates, and anglers, those 'meek inflictors of pangs intolerable.' Homo ferox, the Inventor of Cruelty to Animals, who will rear pheasants at enormous expense for the pleasure of killing them: who will go to the trouble of training other animals to kill: who will burn living rats, as I have seen done in Eriu, fit order that their shrieks may intimidate the local rodents: who will forcibly degenerate the livers of domestic geese, in order to make himself a tasty food: who will saw the growing horns off cattle, for convenience in transport: who will blind gold-finches with a needle, to make them sing: who will boil lobsters and shrimps alive, although he hears their piping screams: who will turn on his own species in war, and kill nineteen million every hundred years: who will publicly murder his fellow men when he has adjudged them to be criminals: and who has invented a way of torturing his own children with a stick, or of exporting them to concentration camps called Schools, where the torture can be applied by proxy ... Yes, you are right to ask whether man can properly be described as ferox, for certainly the word in its natural meaning of wild life among decent animals ought never to be applied to such a creature."
Here is an excerpt from the letter of Charles Lamb to Robert Southey (March 20, 1799):
I love this sort of poems, that open a new intercourse with the most despised of the animal and insect race. I think this vein may be further opened; Peter Pindar hath very prettily apostrophised a fly; Burns hath his mouse and his louse; Coleridge, less successfully, hath made overtures of intimacy to a jackass, therein only following at unresembling distance Sterne and greater Cervantes. Besides these, I know of no other examples of breaking down the partition between us and our "poor earth-born companions." It is sometimes revolting to be put in a track of feeling by other people, not one's own immediate thoughts, else I would persuade you, if I could (I am in earnest), to commence a series of these animal poems, which might have a tendency to rescue some poor creatures from the antipathy of mankind. Some thoughts come across me;—for instance—to a rat, to a toad, to a cockchafer, to a mole—people bake moles alive by a slow oven-fire to cure consumption. Rats are, indeed, the most despised and contemptible parts of God's earth. I killed a rat the other day by punching him to pieces, and feel a weight of blood upon me to this hour. Toads you know are made to fly, and tumble down and crush all to pieces. Cockchafers are old sport; then again to a worm, with an apostrophe to anglers, those patient tyrants, meek inflictors of pangs intolerable, cool devils; to an owl; to all snakes, with an apology for their poison; to a cat in boots or bladders. Your own fancy, if it takes a fancy to these hints, will suggest many more. A series of such poems, suppose them accompanied with plates descriptive of animal torments, cooks roasting lobsters, fishmongers crimping skates, &c., &c., would take excessively. I will willingly enter into a partnership in the plan with you: I think my heart and soul would go with it too—at least, give it a thought. My plan is but this minute come into my head; but it strikes me instantaneously as something new, good and useful, full of pleasure and full of moral. If old Quarles and Wither could live again, we would invite them into our firm. Burns hath done his part.
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