Of All God’s Living Creatures

Of all God’s living creatures only we
With subtle artifice create our style
Of dress and image, and with painted smile
Construct the me we want the world to see.
Though what they are is all that they can be,
Would any beast consider it worthwhile,
Supposing he were able, to beguile
His kind with such conceit and vanity?

“I want no artful guise” says one, “I know
No other self but mine: I seldom speak,
Though proud am I, I have no need for show.
With each among my kind I am unique:
And never will, ordained before my birth,
My like be seen again upon this earth.”

 

 

A Winter in Uzbekistan

A winter in Uzbekistan so cold
And raw and brittle, on the steppes some years
Ago, the day we saw three dogs whose ears
Had crudely been cut off, so we were told
To render them more docile, more controlled.
It kept their livestock safe, quelled farmers’ fears;
An outrage to their nature it appears,
To maim these dogs to bar their being bold.

And then we noticed one of them had lost
A leg. His kennel-mate would lean daylong
Against him, keep him upright in the frost:
In such a manner both would get along.
Compassion surely taught one to assist,
As surely trust helped both to coexist.

 

 

A Razorbill’s Egg, 1902

The dated eggshell of a razorbill (a kind of auk) was found lying casually on a dusty window-ledge in a farmhouse on the mainland of Orkney, Scotland, eleven years ago. Sule Skerry, whence it was taken, is a remote island some 60 kilometres to the west.

Upon a shelf it lies, a lifeless shell,
With Latin name misspelt in careful script.
Its emptiness belies the words that tell
Not of a life blown out or slowly dripped
From fragile refuge in its brittle shard;
Nor why a tender life was put away
Before the springtime of its birth. How hard
To say it never saw the living day.

Sule Skerry, reads the label, crags alive
As then with auks, and though in throngs they thrive
In raging seas and skies and soar and dive
In countless thousands, did it but survive,
The life inside that egg upon the shelf
Would still have been as precious to itself.

 

 

What Walt Whitman Thought

Walt Whitman thought that he could turn and live
With animals, extolled their innocence,
Their inner peace and tolerance. They give
Their all to serve us, die in our defence;
As with the she-wolf in the Lupercal,
Who fed the infant founders of the state
Of Rome, their unsought kindness surely shall
Ensure there should a greater good await.

With no eternal soul there is no prize
For honest beasts that strive for us, their whole
Lives spent in servile toil they recognise
Our lordship and accept their humble role.
How hard it is to meet those patient eyes,
To mark their depths and say we see no soul.

 

 

Peter Hartley is a retired painting restorer. He was born in Liverpool and lives in Manchester, UK.


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15 Responses

  1. Peter Hartley

    Leo – My apologies for the unpossessive apostrophe in line 3, poem 3. I don’t know how that crept in, but thank you for your kind remark.

    Reply
  2. Peter Hartley

    And apologies too for the missing word “crudely” from “A Winter in Uzbekistan”, line 4, viz”… had been crudely cut off…” and lost in the transcription, and the typo … “Sure” for “Sule”, line 9, “A Razorbill’s Egg”

    Reply
  3. Leo Zoutewelle

    Good and well, but it did not diminish my enjoyment of reading the poems!
    Thanks again. 🙂

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      Leo, and thank YOU once again for showing me that you can read the poetry I write as poetry without allowing yourself to be sidetracked (as it is all too easy to become in a society that rightly stresses its benefits) by technical stumblings and failures.

      Reply
  4. James A. Tweedie

    Peter, as usual, your poems are carefully crafted both in form and content. I would describe them as “metaphysical” poems—not in the formalist sense that James Sale spoke of in his comparison of C.B.’s poetry with Donne’s, but simply in reference to your subject matter and the questions you raise and ponder.

    The poems are both “airy” (insofar as they can be easily read) and “heavy/substantive” (insofar as their content is philosophically/metaphysically/theologically complex.

    Do animals have souls? (You seem to assert that they don’t and then seem to question the assertion).

    Do animals have self-identity and/or have value as unique individuals? (In the opening poem you first appear to dismiss the idea—in a way that verges on satire, using a self-prideful beast to mock our human obsession with self-aggrandizement—and then proceed to present the animal’s case with a sympathetic eloquence that seems to affirm it.)

    All of this leaves me up in the air, unsure where I will be standing when I return to the business of making up my mind on the matters one way or the other.

    Overall you appear to have a deep empathy with and a profound respect for the creatures who share this world with us. In these poems you raise the questions but stop short of being “preachy”—leaving us to find our own answers.

    The next step, of course, would be for us to sit down and discuss all of it with you over a cup of coffee/tea, or a good beer at a local pub.

    Do animals have souls? The answer could be “Yes,” “No,” or “all (or none) of the above.” Hmmm . . . I can smell the coffee . . . .

    Reply
  5. Peter Hartley

    James – let me say straight away that I am somewhat in awe of your intellect, in the hope that the admission may pre-empt some of your disbelief at my evident crassitudes. I had already, some time ago identified you as the finest prose writer on this site, which is daunting enough. I am not a philosopher, though I may have a kindred spirit in Schopenhauer; and I am little further on with Nietzsche than to be able to spell his name. Metaphysics flummoxes me; ontology is so full of questions and so thin on answers as to have the negativeeffect of merely sapping me of much of what I thought I might have already known. And eschatology is just terrifying. In the 1st and 3rd poems I wanted to say that humanity holds no monopoly on uniqueness and that if we wanted to find in this quality one of the distinctive features of our humanity then we had better look elsewhere. I remember a RC priest once telling me that our very infinity in numbers ipso facto asserts our individuality and our uniqueness and our importance (for how could we not be important if, despite our vast numbers we are still individually known to Him, which sounds suspiciously like arguing in a circle). And astronomical numbers surely make us feel small and insignificant don’t they? Grains of sand on the beach. I remember in Hardy’s “Two on a Tower” Swithin tells us there are levels in our contemplation of immensities where they become awful and a level beyond which they are ghastly. Now what is the status of animals? I have no idea. And whether or not they have souls is surely contingent on our definition. If only human beings have souls because only humans have self-awareness, self-consciousness and guilt, then why was my dog embarrassed every time he fell in the canal? Regarding animals and pain I can only say they never deserve it. We may do, and sometimes pain tells us when and what is wrong with us, but it tells an animal nothing but that it is weak. Why are the last moments of an animal at best neutral, at worst agonising? What is the point, for them, of extreme pain? Why do animals perpetuate their kind by tearing each other to pieces and eating each other? My stupid questions again and again and no answers. Airy, I think you said. But it’s time for that coffee now, and time I put a sock in it.

    Reply
    • James A. Tweedie

      Peter, how good of you to share your thoughts over our metaphysical cup of coffee! My first response is to say that I can spell Nietzsche but the spelling of Schopenhauer is beyond my pay grade.

      I’d also add that the whole reason for philosophy in general and metaphysics (and theology) in particular is to impose some sense of order onto the muddled world in which we find ourselves. So I would say the your muddledness is clear evidence that you are both human and normal.

      My favorite philosophy professor used to say that the arc of every philosophy was pre-determined by the questions that were being asked. If you are concerned about the idea of sin then Jesus and the Christian faith will (in my opinion) provide the best answers and solutions to the subject. If sin is not an issue then some form of Buddhism might work for you. Sartre, Camus, and Kafka were all “Existentialists” who grappled with the problems associated with living in a meaningless universe. But, because they were each interested in different questions (Kafka”absurdity;” Camus “creating meaning by acting purposefully;” Sartre “how to embrace meaninglessness and keep from going crazy or kill yourself from depression or despair”) That’s what I liked about your poems and why I described them as metaphysical, because they were addressing real philosophical muddles by asking questions and positing (or at least proposing) possible ways to respond to them.

      I especially like your reference to Hardy and our varied human responses to the vastness and unconscionable complexity of the universe taken as a whole or of any part of it taken alone. Your use of animals/beasts/non-human creatures as your starting point is an approach that will lead our conversation in a direction that will be quite different from one that began with questions about organic vs. inorganic material as a starting point—just as the first principles raised by those who oppose abortion are different from those raised by those who support and affirm it.

      Such debates and conversations are useful insofar as they sharpen our views and (hopefully) lead us into a deeper understanding of how someone with conflicting opinions views the world.

      The ultimate muddle concerns the concept of truth. If there is such a thing then it cannot be that everything is true (which is where we are today in a post-modern world). When we reach that point then there is really no longer any point in asking questions at all. The result is that philosophy ceases to serve any real purpose (and this includes the philosophy of science—which then becomes a mere ideological tool, and theology—which becomes viewed as symptomatic of narrow-minded, ignorant bigotry). What is left at that point is a choice between anarchy and totalitarianism (which, ironically, are two particular social philosophies themselves!)

      Pilate once asked, “What is truth?” We would all be well served by asking the same question and then consider the relative merits of the various answers that present themselves.

      Peter, I hope you continue to ask question and frame them in your poetry. It is a gift rarely possessed and even more rarely applied in such a creative way as you have done here.

      Reply
      • Peter Hartley

        James – Many thanks for your detailed answer to one lost in his particular philosophical wilderness. To hone straight in on your concluding remarks, though, it does seem to me that to ask myself “What is truth?” I am on a hiding to nothing. Two thousand years have yielded no definitive answer to Pilate’s rhetorical(?) question or throw-away remark (may such be found in the bible?) so I doubt very much if I will find one in my remaining years. In any case in order, as you say, to consider all the possible answers that present themselves I should need to understand the question. Which I don’t. Keats famously, and for me enigmatically, gives to us what one great poet thinks is the answer. It seems to me, though, the two abstract nouns truth and beauty bear no direct comparison, and if that is all I know on earth and all I need to know then my student years have been a waste of time. There is indeed, as you have written above, and for the poet and the philosopher at least, a muddle over the concept of truth but not, apparently, for the semasiologist: my dictionary definition for truth seems to be perfectly lucid. Would it have placated Pilate, though, or would he still have washed his hands?

  6. C.B. Anderson

    Peter,

    Very good poems indeed! Do animals have souls? The answer from Anthroposophy is that they have “group souls” and that humans are not animals but in a kingdom of their own. You will notice that most animals (squirrels, say) behave identically with others of their kind. Dogs are strange and seem to have more individualized personalities. Perhaps this has something to do with their long period of domestic association with humans. Another idea from Anthroposophy is that evolution is a spiritual process and that human evolution is the result of animals splitting off from the human stream to create the preordained “crown of creation,” for which we owe animals a great debt. And how do we repay this debt? By eating them! Anyway, Rudolf Steiner’s lectures on this subject are far more detailed and complicated than I could begin to convey in this little comment box.

    Reply
    • Peter Hartley

      CBA – It has been an orthoepic epic just trying to pronounce “anthroposophy” but I do agree that we owe to animals more than is repaid by simply eating them. Peter Singer, the Australian philosopher believed, I think, that all animals are subjects of a life and as such are worthy of respect. The word “speciesism”, on the analogy of ageism and sexism, was coined as long as fifty years ago to describe the existence of a scale in our treatment of animals and the level of cruelty that we are morally entitled to inflict upon them, with human beings at the top end of the scale and warranting the least cruelty (and slugs perhaps at the bottom?) But I do find it hard to understand, still less to justify, apparently gratuitous animal suffering

      Reply
      • C.B. Anderson

        Peter,

        I agree completely. And I won’t eat slugs, but I will gladly eat their relatives, including squid, octopus and other cephalopods. I like gastropods as well; specifically, scungilli is one of my favorites. Seafood might be the last place where carnivores are not accused of cruelty. What rational being would ever say, “Pity the oyster?”

  7. Peter Hartley

    CBA – I mentioned slugs in the knowledge that you are/were a gardening expert and assumed that you would take a limacophobe’s delight in annihilating every one of the slimy little b******ds from within the bounds of your privy curtilage. As indeed would I.

    Reply
      • Peter Hartley

        … Although I couldn’t deliberately squash a slug in cold blood I would be fully prepared to eat untold googolplexes of them if it would keep them off my bodacious ordures.

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