I got back from England last week. While I was there it surprised me to see on at least two occasions a cold mound of badger flesh, large as a black plastic rubbish sack, one dead paw raised as if to ask a question in class, lying at the side of a rural road. I don't remember that sight from the days when I grew up in the country. Perhaps badgers are coming back there? Since the disappearances of bear, boar and wolf, the badger has been the UK's largest undomesticated carnivore. They are tenacious, resilient and rough animals. Edward Thomas (who as a boy had badger-baited) called the creature "That most ancient Briton of English beasts."
Yesterday night, as I sat vigil in California with my jet lag, I found myself blearily reading a set of online comments about John Clare's "The Badger", a poem about violent encounters between badgers and humans. When I did, it struck me that a temptation to be foresworn in interpreting poetry is that of fondly "discovering" the poet's heart is in the right place. The form this interpretive snare often takes is convincing oneself that the poet's deepest convictions are extraordinarily close to one's own. In this case, for example, one has to guard against the assumption that John Clare's words are a sort of RSPCA-poem of the 1830s or thereabouts.
I'm not advocating a return to legalized badger-torture (and drawing on Clare for support...). But I do say that there has to be something a little bit troubling or disconcerting in most good poetry and that "The Badger" shows, above all, a fascination with violence, physical endurance, trickery and combat. It may not be what one expects or wants to find, but to acknowledge the estranging reality makes the poem more interesting.
Sometimes "The Badger" even displays a burly delight in seeing injuries inflicted: look at the hapless woodsman tumbling into the badger sett at the start. In the past, as perhaps now, there was an aesthetic taste for which nothing was better than watching a pratfall, preferably a painful one.
Clare's poem dates from the great age of pugilism in the British Isles. (In the asylum in Epping Forest where Clare spent the years between 1837 and 1841, he told the doctors that he was "Boxer Byron", an eerie composite of the combative aristocrat poet and the working class prizefighter Jack Randall.) In "The Badger" the fight, and its vicissitudes, are all. That's what we're here for, at the arena of this poem. Look how little there is about the badger's life and habits in the wild. Specific, naturalistic visual detail in stanza one fades to a blurring cacophony of noise and forced movement in the poem's subsequent parts. Clare is not interested in badgers, as such, at least in this poem. Instead he is mesmerized by the spectacle of a protracted, brutal struggle in which the badger participates. Is that a surprise? Aside from love, hasn't one of poetry's core subjects always been war?
Above all, here the poetry isn't in the pity. The poem's excited voyeurism—its oscillating identifications with man and beast, its ambivalences about watching pain to the death given and inflicted - isn't a simple phenomenon of course. A swarm of feelings and attitudes crash and blunder against each other. That is signalled by the formal tension between the popularist flavour of the rugged, rough heroic couplets and the aristocratic restraint of the sonnet form that the poem's "stanzas" galumph in and out of. But this heady and disturbing stew of sensations is what Clare's poem wants to explore. And the badger itself is only an accessory to that fact. It is there not to be the "subject" of the poem but to produce the occasion for describing a fight. Couldn't one say, indeed, that the poor creature is only a kind of content-roadkill, occasioned in Clare's self-reflective poem getting from the A of inspiration to the B of expression?
(This post was prompted by Robert Pinsky's hosted discussion about "The Badger" at Slate: http://www.slate.com/id/2262972/.)