Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Animal Lovers in the 18th Century

As I read Barbauld's The Mouse's Petition, it became very clear that she was making an argument against the ill-treatment of animals at the time. However, unlike Cowper for instance, who depicts Tiney the hare in a very natural and realistic way, Barbauld idealizes the mouse in her poem by allowing the mouse to have a very rational voice. Although the narrator in the poem is a mouse, she gives it human attributes and calls on human feelings to create parallels between humans and animals: "Oh! hear a pensive captive's prayer,/For liberty that sighs;/ And never let thine heart be shut/ Against the prisoner's cries" (lines 1-4). The image of enslavement is very powerful in the poem because it evokes emotions in the reader and pushes for a sense of empathy. More importantly, it forces the reader to think about the treatment of animals in light of slavery, which had been abolished in Britain at the beginning of the 18th Century. Therefore, this politically and socially charged image of a chained and confined prisoner is one that is strategically used by Barbauld to join humanitarian/abolitionist efforts with those defending the rights of animals in a way: "If e'er thy breast with freedom glow'd,/ And spurn'd a tyrant's chain,/ Let not thy strong oppressive force/ A free-born mouse detain" (lines 9-12). Like the people fighting against the institutions of slavery in Britain in the 17th Century, the mouse is asking for humans to fight for animal rights. It all comes down to animals having feelings like humans do.

1 comment:

  1. Important to note: the abolitionist movement to abolish the slave *trade* was gaining momentum in the late 18th century Britain, but the trade was not abolished until 1807, and slavery in the colonies was not abolished until 1833 (as a result of the reform bill of 1832). This means that Barbauld is tackling a very current and important political issue in the poem, one that would not be resolved for another 30+ years after she published this poem in 1773 (her "Epistle to William Wilberforce" of 1796 is her most important anti-slavery poem).