The Hidden Snare

Frank Bartolozzi, after Bunbury,   The Mouse's Peitition, 1791Like Robert Burn’s “To a Mouse,” Anna Letitia Barbauld’s poem “The Mouse’s Petition” was in the form of a supplication. Only this time man wasn’t imploring mouse, mouse was imploring man; and as such, compassion shown for animals had entered a new territory. The year was 1773.

At the heart of the poem is a mouse who’s been trapped to become the subject of a certain Dr. Priestley. The mouse pleads for his freedom:

OH ! hear a pensive captive’s prayer,
For liberty that sighs;
And never let thine heart be shut
Against the prisoner’s cries.

His appeal continues on a high note of desperation that’s left others since to reconstruct the story behind it with an equal degree of distress. First the facts: Joseph Priestley in 1700s England was a leading political thinker as well as a scientist. He was credited for the discovery of an air-like substance that we know today as oxygen—but not before he used live mice in experiments with deadly gases. Meanwhile Barbauld, according to William McCarthy’s biography, considered Dr. Priestley and his wife to be her second family.

One evening the poet, who was often a guest in the Priestley home, witnessed a mouse caught in one of the doctor’s live traps. Since it was already nighttime, Priestley’s servant took the mouse to the lab where the small rodent was destined to sit in a cage till the following day. When the doctor entered the lab the next morning he found the mouse with a rolled-up piece of paper stuck in between the cage’s metal bars. On the sheet was written none other than “The Mouse’s Petition” with the pointed inscription “To Doctor Priestley.”

For here forlorn and sad I sit,
Within the wiry grate;
And tremble at th’ approaching morn,
Which brings impending fate.
 
If e’er thy breast with freedom glow’d,
And spurn’d a tyrant’s chain,
Let not thy strong oppressive force
A free-born mouse detain.

The good doctor, it was reported, set the mouse free.

Upon publication the deceptively sweet poem found its many fans. “The Mouse’s Petition” was critically received and applauded for its condemnation of animal experimentation by the same people who were finding their voices to courageously speak out against animal cruelty and for the rights of animals. As a ‘petition’ the poem, they viewed, could be none other than a political text. It accorded the mouse a consciousness and basically asked: What gives humans the right to have dominion over another creature?

That, however, was not the end of the story. Stirring the pot, Barbauld tossed in a pinch of doubt with the third edition of her poem a year later. She went it seems out of her way to separate herself from her reviewers. She wrote in a note that accompanied the poem’s new publication: The Author is concerned to find, that what was intended as the petition of mercy against justice, has been construed as the plea of humanity against cruelty. She is certain that cruelty could never be apprehended from the Gentleman to whom this is addressed; and the poor animal would have suffered more as a victim of domestic economy [i.e., in a mouse trap], than of philosophical curiosity.

Scholars on the right have taken her coda at face value, embracing the mouse’s plight as a mere metaphor for a number of injustices prevalent in the poet’s Georgian society, while critics on the left, then and now, have stood by the verse’s literal interpretation. McCarthy, who spent twenty years researching Barbauld’s life and her works, argues that there really is no ambiguity when it comes to the poem’s meaning, that the poet’s intention is clear. Barbauld, unusually highly educated for a young woman at that time, had a teasing relationship with Priestley and would often enter into a lively discussion about his actions “from the stance of alternative ethics.”[1] The note she attached to the poem’s new edition was nothing more than a realization she had, with her friend, regrettably gone too far.

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[1] William McCarthy, Anna Letitia Barbauld: Voice of the Enlightenment, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008.

Additional sources: Jerom Murch, Mrs. Barbauld and Her Contemporaries, London, 1877; Kathryn Ready, “‘What then, poor Beastie!’: Gender, Politics, and Animal Experimentation in Anna Barbauld’s ‘The Mouse’s Petition,’” Eighteenth-Century Life, Winter 2004.

(Image: The Mouse’s Petition, etching and stipple, print made by Francesco Bartolozzi, Henry William Bunbury, 1791, The British Museum, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)


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