More than a flea in your ear

3rd October 1997 at 01:00
THE FABER BOOK OF BEASTS. Edited by Paul Muldoon. Faber Pounds 14.00.

There's nothing I like better than a good beast in a good poem, although I know other readers may want to reach for the gun. Fortunately, Paul Muldoon's anthology, The Faber Book of Beasts, is an offering various and fabulous enough to convert the most hardened detractor.

It's not just me. Philosophers and artists from the earliest times have been fascinated with animals. They are the main subject of one of the first forms of human artistic expression - cave painting - and we are still dependent on our beasts for food, clothing, company and more. There is something compelling about their closeness to us, as underlined by the links implicit in evolutionary theory.

The differences preoccupy us too, and have done so since at least Aristotle, causing us to grant animals their own kingdom and their own souls, when we allow them souls at all. Animals make us wonder how can we know them, how can we know anything other'?? at all, and how can we know ourselves.

Many of the first riddles and poems in all languages are beast-based and animals have prowled their way through the canon ever since. From Aesop to Chaucer, from Christopher Smart to Marianne Moore, in almost every case human characteristics are read into animal behaviour or appearance. There are some exceptions which are more about an admiration of nature and a belief in its fundamental separation from strictly human nature.

Muldoon's vivid anthology leans more towards the imagination than nature study. Animals gallop and slither through political and social satire, through metamorphosis, allegory, fable and conceit, through the mystery and fun of their similarities and differences to us. For sheer zest and pleasure, it is hard to think of a poetry anthology of any kind to beat this one.

Muldoon's selection is the ideal mix combining well-known pleasures like John Donne's "The Flea" and Christopher Smart's "My Cat Jeoffry" with surprises like the extract from "Oppian's Halieuticks" by William Diaper. It is a deft and sure-footed set of choices, enhanced by the alphabetical ordering - by poem title, not by author.

This way you see, side-by-side, the horses of Francis Ponge, William Carlos Williams and Edwin Muir or the elephants of Jonathan Swift, Marianne Moore and Louis MacNeice. The serendipity of the method also has some gloriously strange outcomes, such as the juxtaposition of T S Eliot's "The Song of the Jellicles" with Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself".

My few quibbles sound mean in the face of this zoo of riches, but here they are. Where is Chaucer, for me, the beginning and end of it all? And more Marianne Moore: I find it hard to do without "The Pangolin" and "Tippoo's Tiger".

A few parts of Muldoon's introduction read like a private chat between Faber and Faber worthies, not of great interest to a general readership. There could have been less of that and more of the excellent discussion of poetry and animals which comprises the most of it and concludes with Byron's pertinent epitaph on his Newfoundland dog, Botswain: "Near this spot are deposited the remains of one who possessed beauty without vanity, strength without insolence, courage without ferocity, and all the virtues of man without his vices. "

The Faber Book of Beasts captures the wonder of the last words of Darwin's on the Origin of Species..."from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved." Animals, their closeness and difference to us; this anthology, a hymn to diversity.

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