Last Updated on April 16, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1311
May Kendall’s “The Lay of the Trilobite” is composed of nine octaves, or eight-line stanzas. Each stanza has a rhyme scheme of ABABCDCD and adheres to common meter, an alternation between iambic tetrameter and iambic trimeter. Thus, each stanza essentially combines two standard ballad quatrains. This formal structure aids the development of the narrative and gives the lines a light, song-like tone in keeping with the poem’s satirical aims.
Kendall’s chief literary device in the poem is irony, which she weaves into the poem’s broader conceit as well as its phrases and lines. Although Kendall’s tone is sardonic, her subject matter is serious: the implications of evolutionary theory. The poem begins with the speaker, a Victorian man, complaining about a lack of mental stimulation. He seeks inspiration in nature, from “A mountain’s giddy height,” so that he can “fill [his] mighty mind.” The alliterative phrase “mighty mind” highlights that the speaker sees his own brain as quite advanced, an idea that sets up the poem’s later ironic commentary on evolution. The speaker is walking around outside feeling “ill at ease,” when he stumbles upon “An ancient Trilobite,” which he describes as “A native of the Silurian seas.” These descriptors place the extinct life-form in a much earlier time. As the poem goes on to explore evolution and natural selection, these early lines introduce the contrast between simpler ancient creatures and modern humans.
In the second stanza, the speaker describes the trilobite as lying “calm” and “peacefully,” the first indication of the untroubled psyche of this arthropod, as opposed to the conflicted mind of the speaker. The sight of the trilobite makes the speaker ponder “Monads far away / In the forgotten years.” Specifically, these ancient gods, much removed from his own era, may have had a “providential plan” that determined who would develop into as advanced a creature as “a Man!” Here, another alliterative expression emphasizes the belief that evolution was designed by some all-knowing deity, which implies that humanity was chosen for a higher purpose. The speaker’s exclamation draws attention to the wonder he feels at having been singled out as exceptional.
Kendall then introduces the trilobite as a second voice in the poem. The trilobite begins to talk in a manner both “natural and free,” as though this impossible scenario is not at all extraordinary. When the trilobite speaks, it answers the question in the speaker’s mind about the purpose of evolution: “I don’t know how the thing was done . . . But Huxley—he if anyone / Can tell you all about it.” The trilobite admits to not understanding how natural selection works, but refers the speaker to a more reliable source: Thomas Henry Huxley, a famous biologist of the Victorian era who staunchly supported Darwin’s theory of natural selection. In the first of many instances of irony, Kendall has the supposedly ignorant and simple trilobite allude to a contemporary scientist.
The trilobite lists other topics Huxley may be able to explain: the illusions of religion and the fact that “Your ancestors were Monotremes.” Kendall is referring to how religious accounts of creation are incompatible with evolutionary theory, a major source of intellectual conflict in the Victorian age. The word “Monotremes” applies to a group of egg-laying mammals, such as the platypus, that are less evolved than humans. Humans may be insulted to hear they have risen from these lower life-forms; in this way, evolutionary theory challenges the speaker’s feelings of superiority and his sense of being singled out as a special species. The trilobite describes man as having “evolved … shining lights / Of wisdom and perfection / From Jelly-fish and Trilobites.” These lines recognize humanity’s complexity and cognitive abilities but also perhaps deflate those abilities as being derived not from divine sources but from ancient marine creatures.
The following stanza further suggests that the trilobite’s references to “lights” and “wisdom and perfection” are ironic. The trilobite says,
The native of an alien land
You call a man and brother,
And greet with hymn-book in one hand
And pistol in the other!
This picture of duplicity and aggression is a bold critique of colonialism. The colonizers—referred to as “You,” perhaps singling out the English—offer professions of goodwill but negate them with contradictory behavior. This calls into question how truly evolved or enlightened humanity is, as the reader recalls the trilobite’s description of man’s “shining lights” from an earlier stanza.
This criticism continues as the trilobite discusses humanity’s penchant for “Politics,” which seems “to make [them] fight.” Humanity’s power struggles can be won by “cannon,” “dynamite,” or “the loudest din.” The trilobite suggests that men claim authority over one another based on firepower and aggression rather than diplomacy. All it takes for one side “to be right” is to silence the other through weaponry and bombastic rhetoric. The trilobite ends this stanza with a remark that humanity is in “a pretty fix,” an understatement that ironically contrasts the severity of the previous images.
The trilobite completes its speech by contrasting itself with humanity. This creature is “gentle, stupid, free from woe” because it “didn’t care—I didn’t know / That I was a Crustacean.” These claims imply that the trilobite’s life may be ideal because it is marked by a lack of both external conflict and inner turmoil. As a simple life-form, the trilobite does not, like the speaker, experience the torment of a “mighty mind” that suffers from too much or too little stimulation. The trilobite “lives among [its] nation” in peace, in contrast to the wars referenced in the previous three stanzas. Kendall incorporates a humorous footnote that states the trilobite “was not a Crustacean” but that “He has since discovered he was an Arachnid, or something similar. But he says it does not matter . . . they told him wrong once, and they may again.” It is worth noting that “they” are humans, and despite their purportedly high intellect and sophistication, the trilobite exhibits neither patience for their repeated errors nor much faith in their ability to properly categorize him.
Finally, the speaker retakes control of the poem, reflecting on what the trilobite has said. The speaker “Reluctantly” leaves, which suggests he would like to hear more of this creature’s wisdom, which is somewhat ironic considering the supposedly much more refined mind of the man himself. The speaker acknowledges that he cannot outwardly “answer him, for that / Would have annoyed my pride.” Nevertheless, he does thank the trilobite by bowing and lifting his hat. This comical exchange highlights the speaker’s ridiculous attention to propriety—a typically Victorian tendency—and desire to preserve the illusion that he is indeed more intelligent than this sentient and insightful arthropod. He will not share his profound thoughts with the trilobite but expresses them in the poem by exclaiming, “I wish our brains were not so good / I wish our skulls were thicker.”
The speaker’s lament that he is so advanced is both pathetic and ironic, but it also raises questions about the very real dilemmas that come with human cognition. There is the capacity for good but also the capacity to manipulate. Humans can create philosophy, poetry, and science, but they can also create havoc, war, and inner struggles. The speaker ends with his reading of the trilobite’s life as “a happy plight / Of liberty and ease.” Compared to his own troubles, the trilobite’s experience seems peaceful and easy. Surely the speaker comes off as silly in this last section of the poem, not least because, ironically enough, he has been informed of the shortcomings of humanity by an extinct and miscategorized trilobite that claims it cannot “rhyme” and knows nothing of evolution or philosophy. Indeed, throughout the poem, Kendall carefully uses irony to approach what is essentially a serious topic.
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