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Animal Rights and Welfare

Coalbrookdale by Night
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.
Romantic poets like Wordsworth, Coleridge and Shelley are famous for poems in which the individual human subject confronts the vast and sublime face of capital "n" Nature. However, many Romantics (including Coleridge) were also concerned with the non-human animals that inhabited an intermediate space between the mass of Nature writ large and the human. 1822 saw the passing of "An Act to prevent the cruel and improper Treatment of Cattle" and 1824 saw the creation of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, headed up by Parliamentarians Richard Martin and William Wilberforce. The way to a popular concern with animal welfare had been prepared by public appeals against human cruelty and appeals to animal rights. We can find an example of the former in William Hogarth's 1751 didactic print series the Four Stages of Cruelty, in which a boy who tortures animals ultimately comes to human murder (and subsequent execution). Chapter seventeen of Jeremy Bentham's 1789 Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation gives us an example of the latter, claiming that whether a group of beings have rights turns not on the questions "Can they reason?, nor Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?" Bentham's claim for animal rights, seen as radical in its own time and often in ours as well, has served as a source of inspiration for the Animal Liberation movement philosophically inaugurated by Peter singer's 1975 book Animal Liberation (in which the above line is quoted).

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
But sticks and cudgels quickly stop the chace ...
And then they loose them and set them on
He falls as dead and kicked by boys and men
Then starts and grins and drives the crowd agen
Till kicked and torn and beaten out he lies
And leaves his hold and cackles and groans and dies

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.

Andrew Lallier

Select Bibliography

Perkins, David. Romanticism and Animal Rights. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2003. Print.