Nature Makes Us Do Bad Things

William Cowper (the famous poet cited by one of the movie adaptations of Fanny Price in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park [1814]) wrote a rather humorous set of poems, “On a Spaniel Beau, Killing a Young Bird” and “Beau’s reply.” Beau unapologetically attacks a wild bird against his master’s commands, to his master’s chagrin. The dog explains:

Sir, when I flew to seize the bird

in spite of your command:

A louder voice than your’s [sic] I heard,

And harder to withstand.

You cried “Forbear!” but in my breast

A mightier cried “Proceed!”

’Twas nature, Sir.

This pair of poems are part of a long, long discourse that constructs “nature” (the “wild,” the “animal,” etc.) in opposition to “culture” (“civilization,” the “human,” etc.). I love how the dog’s voice is so carefully beseeching even as he insists on his “natural” right to hunt and kill a wild bird. 

The full poem is quite worth reading, for the spaniel makes a careful argument of rational self-defense. In this argument, he points out that he has never made an attempt on his master’s pet bird’s life, having made the (rather human?) distinction between his master’s beloved property and the rest of (unowned) avian life.  

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