Animal Rights and Welfare
Painting of the Trial of Bill Burns, P. Matthews c1822. The trial (also in 1822) is the first recorded prosecution for animal cruelty. While the trial itself reflects the growing concern of the British public with animal welfare, the painter may not have entirely shared this concern.
Most contemporary pleas for animal welfare in the Romantic era drew on the language of cruelty rather than of rights, but Romantic poets did not always stop at advocating the cessation of cruelty to animals. John Clare wrote, but did not publish, a sonnet series on badger-baiting (sometimes called "The Badger"), which shows definite empathy for the victim, describing the badger attempting a retreat:
He trys to reach the woods a awkard race
In a style dedicated to simple presentation (even eschewing punctuation), Clare nonetheless makes use of poetic resources to encourage us to feel the pain and exhaustion of the badger as this sonnet draws to a close. Romantic identifications with animals came in a variety of forms. In "To a Young Ass" (1794), Coleridge addressed the "Poor little Foal of an oppressed race," "I hail thee, Brother." Although this poem has sometimes been read as satiric, its implicit connection with Coleridge's then-radical politics and aspirations to universal brotherhood should not be ignored. Likewise, in "To a Mouse," Robert Burns expresses regret that "man's dominion / Has broken Nature's social union" (although the poet's beneficent appeal may itself imply a relation of mastery). Robert Southey's 1798 poem, "To a Spider," by contrast, imagines a connection with the spider grounded in labor, whereby the spider's spinning becomes a model and likeness to the poet's writing. Although the ASPCA and World Wildlife Fund are more likely to use dogs, cats and pandas to appeal for protective funds, the Romantic poets often went beyond the bounds of medium-to-large mammals in their poetry, perhaps reaching the outer realms of identification in Blake's meditations on animals like slugs, earwigs, tape-worms and fleas.
Perkins, David. Romanticism and Animal Rights. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2003. Print.