Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 506

The main subject of “Badger” is the relationship of the wild animal to the humans who bait and tame it. What is the reader to make of the townspeople’s cruelty to the badger? One response to the poem would be to condemn the badger-baiters as ignorant sadists, but Clare’s avoidance...

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The main subject of “Badger” is the relationship of the wild animal to the humans who bait and tame it. What is the reader to make of the townspeople’s cruelty to the badger? One response to the poem would be to condemn the badger-baiters as ignorant sadists, but Clare’s avoidance of moral judgment suggests that he would not necessarily agree with this view. Although Clare would not have been aware of Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection, he understood the concept of survival of the fittest from observing animal behavior in the fields near Helpston. For example, in his natural history notes, Clare carefully describes how green beetles will attack a large moth, devour part of it, and drag the moth’s corpse to their hole. There is the same sense of detachment in “Badger”; Clare never expresses pity for the badger nor outrage against the townspeople. In fact, the townspeople and the badger resemble each other in their ferocity—one might even say that in the poem the animal and his tormentors become indistinguishable.

Despite Clare’s detachment, the poem does seem to imply that the badger is being cruelly mistreated—certainly the odds, one small badger versus a whole town of dogs and rock-throwing and cudgel-wielding people, do not seem even remotely fair. Thus some readers of the poem consider the baited badger as a victim of the townspeople’s capricious exercise of power over a vulnerable creature and, by extension, a reflection of Clare’s own feelings about tyranny. As an agricultural laborer, Clare was well aware of abuses of power—his satire The Parish is a bitter attack on the tyrants of a country parish—the greedy farmers, constables, overseers, judges, and bailiffs who could make a poor man’s life miserable. Clare also considered the acts of enclosure, which destroyed cherished landmarks and drove peasants off the land, as examples of political oppression. Put in the context of Clare’s sincere hatred of tyranny and slavery in any form, “Badger” could be seen as a protest against the unfair use of power against a weaker adversary. When the badger runs toward the woods and freedom, the townspeople turn him back with clubs; when the badger is beaten and helpless, he is kicked and torn by the savage mob. Moreover, the last stanza about the tame badger, which must fight at his master’s bidding, is yet another example of human tyranny over less fortunate creatures. Examined in this light, “Badger” is more than the description of cruelty against badgers—it is a blanket indictment of the abuses visited upon the powerless by the powerful.

Much of the power of “Badger” comes, however, from its harsh realism: One can tell by reading the poem that this poet-naturalist has carefully studied nature and country life. Clare’s main task in “Badger” is to present the reader with a vivid portrait of this misunderstood animal and its sometimes violent relationship with the inhabitants of a rural community, and he succeeds brilliantly.

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