The Lay of the Trilobite Themes
The main themes in “The Lay of the Trilobite” are evolution, the human capacity for destruction, and humanity versus nature.
- Evolution: Kendall’s poem calls into question whether humanity’s relatively advanced evolutionary status is a good thing.
- The human capacity for destruction: The poem criticises humanity’s tendency towards violence and aggression, which has created a great deal of chaos.
- Humanity versus nature: The poem delineates the differences between natural and human modes of existence.
Last Updated on April 16, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1077
Kendall’s poem contrasts the trilobite, an extinct arthropod, with a Victorian-era human, taking the premise of evolution as a starting point. Humanity has in many ways evolved further than other life-forms, and the poem questions whether that evolution has resulted in positive outcomes.
The speaker begins the poem by noting his restlessness and constant need for stimulation due to his “mighty mind.” He is “ill at ease,” possibly because his analytical capabilities make it difficult for his mind to be at peace or to rest. During their discussion, the trilobite muses on the speaker’s question—why he is a man and the trilobite a trilobite—by pondering
How you evolved your shining lights
Of wisdom and perfection
From Jelly-Fish and Trilobites
By Natural Selection.
The references to “shining lights” implies the level of enlightenment achieved thus far by humans. They are contrasted with lower forms of life like “Jelly-Fish” and the trilobite itself, emphasizing their superiority due to their “wisdom.” It is a wonder that humans have been the beneficiaries of such a complex evolutionary process. The trilobite’s praise of the human proves to be ironic, considering its critique of humanity’s violence and duplicity in the next stanza.
Later in the poem, the trilobite suggests that being a less complex life-form may actually be preferable, as it calls itself “gentle, stupid, free from woe.” Two of those three descriptors are positive, and the one that is negative—“stupid”—could be read as sardonic, mocking the man’s sense of superiority over other creatures. The trilobite lived in peace with other trilobites, in contrast to the bellicose nature of humanity. The trilobite “didn’t grumble” or “steal,” and “never took to rhyme.” It highlights some specifically human activities here, two of which are explicitly negative in connotation; the third, poetry, is called into question as well. Indeed, the reference to poetry seems to ironically critique humans’ capacity to manipulate language for the purposes of beauty, argument, and humor. The trilobite itself seems to be making a self-aware joke here by pretending to be humble about its linguistic capacity while actually speaking in rhyme.
Eventually, after listening to the trilobite, the man wonders whether he wouldn’t rather be a simple creature. The speaker claims that, “I wish that Evolution could / Have stopped a little quicker.” He laments that he does not have the relatively calm and carefree life of the trilobite and pleads to be less evolved. He now considers the trilobite’s life “a happy plight / Of liberty and ease.” This phrasing starkly contrasts the speaker’s state of mind as the poem opens, at which point, in a state of inflated self-importance, he is seeking a “vague and mighty thought.” The speaker ultimately questions whether evolution has favored humanity and afforded it a special role and place. In contrast to the widespread sense of exceptionalism many Victorians took from evolutionary theory, Kendall’s poem argues for the opposite perspective—that evolution has led to many negative consequences for humanity.
The Human Capacity for Destruction
As the speaker listens to the trilobite’s message, he hears references to the chaos humanity has wrought on itself and the world. The first specific mention of this is in the poem’s fifth stanza, in which the trilobite asserts,
The native of an alien land
You call a man and brother,
And greet him with hymn-book in one hand
And pistol in the other!
The trilobite is referring to European colonialism in these lines, a project marked by the seemingly contrasting motives of religious conversion and violent subjugation. While the colonizer arrives in this “alien land” and refers to its residents as “man and brother,” his wielding of the pistol represents anything but a plea for peace and understanding. The trilobite thus observes both man’s capability for violence and destruction and the hypocrisy of his supposedly good-intentioned rhetoric.
The trilobite continues to discuss the prevalence of aggression and conflict when it refers to “Politics,” a human phenomenon which the trilobite characterizes as “mak[ing] you fight.” Further, one side can use “cannon” and “dynamite” to subdue the other, or force it to “rest.” The trilobite sardonically notes that the victory goes to “The side that makes the loudest din,” implying that history’s victors are not necessarily superior to those they defeat but simply more aggressive and voluble. Summing up his point, the trilobite sees humanity as being in “a pretty fix,” a chaotic quandary created by their poor judgment and infighting. This is why the trilobite would prefer to be a less advanced life-form, to be “free from woe” in its own “nation.”
Humanity versus Nature
In considering the evolutionary processes that have led to the very different life-forms of man and trilobite, Kendall contrasts the worlds of nature and human society. The implication is that humans have distinguished themselves from the rest of the natural order. While many in Kendall’s day viewed this distinction as a mark of humanity’s superiority, Kendall’s poem frames nature in more positive terms. The trilobite, the central source of wisdom in the poem, is aligned with nature, and the speaker clearly sees the natural world around him as a source of inspiration and a refuge that is separate from the human sphere. When he cannot “fill [his] mighty mind,” he seeks “A mountain’s giddy height.” He goes in search of the sublime, which he associates with landscapes rather than with philosophy or other products of human thought. More importantly, the trilobite’s account of his own existence frames it as idyllic and instinctual, unfettered as he was by the weight of self-awareness. The trilobite’s life was one of simplicity and harmony, of being “among my nation” without any “care” or “knowledge” of his place in the broader scheme of things.
Opposed to the harmony and elegance of nature are references to the violence and chaos human society has wreaked. For example, European colonizers have approached those in other lands with “hymn-book” and “pistol,” and in a conflict, the side with more firepower gains the victory. The trilobite’s implied disapproval of human history suggests that nature is not similarly plagued by this kind of violence and hypocrisy. After hearing the trilobite’s condemnation of man’s actions over the course of history, the speaker muses that it would be better to be the trilobite and to live a more purely natural existence.
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