The Lay of the Trilobite Summary

The Lay of the Trilobite” is an 1885 satirical poem by May Kendall about a conversation between a man and a trilobite regarding evolution.

  • A pompous man searching for intellectual stimulation comes across a trilobite, who begins to speak.
  • The trilobite acknowledges humanity’s advanced intelligence, evolved from more basic organisms, but criticizes the violence and calamity caused by humans.
  • After the trilobite describes his own, simpler existence, the speaker wishes humanity were less evolved.

Summary

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Last Updated on April 16, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 725

Introduction

May Kendall, a novelist, poet, and social reformer, first published “The Lay of the Trilobite” in 1885 in Punch Magazine. The poem deals with one of Kendall’s chief lifelong interests: contemporary science. Specifically, the poem dramatizes the Victorian conversations around the implications of Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Kendall’s poem takes a satirical angle, making fun of the notions of human exceptionalism and superiority that many of her contemporaries held.

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Summary

The speaker opens the poem by stating that he goes out into nature to look for an impressive sight, like a great mountain, because his mind needs to be stimulated by some external force. His mind is “mighty” and sophisticated, so it needs to be constantly engaged. The speaker walks around but is uncomfortable, as he has not yet found anything worthy of his profound thoughts. Finally, he stumbles upon a trilobite, an ancient, extinct arthropod. The speaker mentions that the trilobite is from the Silurian seas, referring to a time period over four hundred million years ago, during the Paleozoic Era.

As the speaker observes the trilobite, he notices that it is still and peaceful, and the sight brings the speaker to tears. He begins to think about Monads, which he refers to as distant and forgotten; those cosmic forces may have determined that his life-form would be a trilobite and that he, the speaker, would be a man. From where it lies in the rock, the trilobite begins to talk openly to the speaker.

The trilobite answers the speaker’s question about why he is a man and the trilobite a trilobite by saying that he does not know why he and the speaker were made in these forms. However, Huxley—that is, Thomas Henry Huxley, the proponent and expositor of Darwinian theory—may be able to understand. The trilobite says that Huxley could explain how humans evolved to their current state in the Victorian Era, in the process showing the falseness and ephemerality of religious accounts of human existence. The trilobite specifically says that such a view might be able to describe how humans became so intelligent, having evolved from simple life-forms to the most complex.

The trilobite references the philosophers Kant and Hegel, indicating how humans can be stimulated by deep thought. The trilobite also alludes to Robert Browning, a Victorian poet, and Mr. Punch, in whose magazine “The Lay of the Trilobite” was published. He says that poetry like Browning’s confuses men and that the magazine makes them laugh. The trilobite then transitions to a discussion of colonialism, saying that humans call people in other countries their brothers but then approach them with their religion and their weapons.

The trilobite explains that humans can get carried away by political arguments. They have powerful artillery with which to fight wars, and in general the side that makes the most noise is the winner. The trilobite states that humans have made the world quite chaotic.

By contrast, the trilobite claims to have lived an easy, calm life. He may not be as intelligent as humans, but he has lived in peace, partly due to his lack of self-knowledge. He recalls that he never complained, stole, or tried to write poetry; he simply lived on the basic necessities.

The speaker leaves the trilobite, though hesitantly. He claims that it would have been below him to respond to the ancient life-form. He simply bows and lifts his hat as a goodbye, but inside, he has been affected by the trilobite’s message. He laments that humans have so much intelligence and wishes they could be less sophisticated. He expresses a desire for evolution to have stopped before humans arrived at this advanced stage. Finally, he reflects that it would be more satisfying to be a trilobite, as his life would be more peaceful.

When “The Ley of the Trilobite” was published in Kendall’s 1887 verse collection, Dreams to Sell, Kendall added a closing footnote which states the trilobite was not actually a crustacean, despite the trilobite referring to itself as such in the middle of the poem. The poet says that the creature found out it was possibly “an Arachnid, or something similar.” The trilobite claims it does not care because if he was mislabeled once, he could be mislabeled again. Indeed, the trilobite is in fact an arthropod.

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