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  • Compassion for Animals and Radical Politics: Coleridge’s “To a Young Ass”
  • David Perkins

I

In the autumn of 1794 Coleridge befriended a young ass that grazed the grass of Jesus College. 1 He would pet it and feed it bread, and when he appeared, the little creature would move toward him “askingly” (l. 23). Doubtless it activated the instinctively protective response that human beings have to mammalian young of whatever species. Moreover, Coleridge was moved, at least subliminally, by stories in high and popular culture that made the ass an emblem of spiritual merit, of a patience, humility, lowliness, and suffering that find favor in heaven. 2 He shared the compassion for animals of most middle-class intellectuals in the later eighteenth century. A few years later he mentioned in a notebook the pain he felt “from having cursed a gnat that was singing about my Head.” 3

Moreover, Coleridge was at this time a radical in politics, and was planning to found a utopian community or Pantisocracy in Pennsylvania. The ass’s mother was a prisoner, tethered to a log, and had eaten all the grass it could reach while plenty waved just beyond her chain. Asses were the work animals of the poor and shared their misery, so it was reasonable for Coleridge to fear that the ass’s master also lived “Half famish’d in a land of Luxury!” (l. 22). In early versions of the poem, the last line trumpeted Coleridge’s republican sentiments in the phrase a “scoundrel Monarch’s Breast.” 4 The words were restrained in comparison with some of Coleridge’s letters at this time: “The Cockatrice is emblematic of Monarchy . . . When Serpents sting, the only Remedy is—to kill the Serpent, and besmear the Wound with the Fat.” 5

“I hail thee Brother”: all Coleridge’s feelings I’ve mentioned converged in this notorious salutation addressed in the poem to the young ass (l. 26). Of all the English poems that sympathize with animals, this has been thought the most extreme. 6 The term “brother” encoded the Revolutionary ideal—liberté, égalité, fraternité. As a salutation, it replaced the society of politeness and hierarchy with one of warmly fraternal mutuality. A Mr. and Mrs. Scott extended their compliments to Coleridge. “Compliments!” cried Coleridge in 1794, “Cold aristocratic Inanities!—I abjure their nothingness. If there be any whom I deem [End Page 929] worthy of remembrance—I am their Brother. I call even my Cat Sister in the Fraternity of the universal Nature.” 7

Thus sympathy with animals and radical politics were intertwined in Coleridge’s mind. One might argue that Coleridge’s political enthusiasm overflowed into a metaphysical intuition or religious sentiment of the unity of all life. Or, starting with the latter belief, we might say that it entailed social leveling, the Revolutionary equality and fraternity among human beings. As Coleridge wrote in “The Eolian Harp” (though not until after 1796), the feeling of “one Life within us and abroad” makes it “impossible / Not to love all things” (ll. 26, 30–31). “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” has now been interpreted so much and variously that it has reached classic omnisignificance. 8 But if one agrees with Leigh Hunt and many other readers that the “Rime” teaches “sympathy for all,” the poem has implications for human politics and social arrangements, even though it does not foreground these topics. 9

Depending on how it was interpreted, the concept of one life might have seemed somewhat unorthodox and pantheistic in Coleridge’s time, but sentiments of loving sympathy with all creatures had the strongest religious sanctions. These were derived from the famous argument from design, which proved the existence, intelligence, and benevolence of God from evidences of His care, as He fashioned the world, for the successful existence of all its inhabitants. According to Thomas Young, in his 1798 An Essay on Humanity to Animals, the “Rights of Animals” can be “deduced from the Light of Nature.” We see that animals feel pleasure and pain and that the natural environment of each species gratifies its senses. (Edward A. Kendall even suggested that animals have greater enjoyment than man of some natural beauties...

Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6547
Print ISSN
0013-8304
Pages
pp. 929-944
Launched on MUSE
1998-12-01
Open Access
No
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