Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

Reciprocal Identities: Human and Beast

Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

Reciprocal Identities: Human and Beast

Article excerpt

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Just as Bourne reverts to the animal world to foreground an essentially human impulse to investigate the imago, so too does he establish points of contact and contrast between human and beast. At times his poetry conveys a series of reciprocal identities, so to speak, whereby these two worlds seem perfectly in tune through acts of mutual kindness and companionship. Thus a man may alleviate the pain of a lion by gently removing a thorn from its paw, an act of kindness that will later be repaid by the lion in the amphitheater,^sup 1^ or a dog may serve a blind master, functioning as his faithful guide, and posthumously rewarded for such fidelity in the form of an eternal memorial.^sup 2^ Or the cricket can enhance human existence through affording cheerful companionship.^sup 3^ On the other hand, the possible dichotomy between the two worlds is suggested in a variety of ways: by a nightingale aspiring to match a shepherd's song, but doing so with tragic consequences;^sup 4^ by the detachment of a jackdaw perched aloft in carefree abstraction, willfully oblivious to the trials and tribulations of human civilization;^sup 5^ by a caged bird, exiled from its surroundings, yet finding solace in song as it accustomizes itself to imprisonment;^sup 6^ and not least by the poet himself in his exasperated attempt at detachment upon perceiving the apparent death wish of a fly flitting about his candle.^sup 7^ But perhaps it is in the reconciliation of these potential tensions that the animal world of Bourne's poetry can in itself serve as a model for human existence and behavior. This manifests itself in, for example, the beauty and functional practicality of the glowworm,8 or in the bee community, which, like its Virgilian counterpart, epitomizes an ideal human civilization.9

2.1 Mutua Benevolentia: From Kindness to Blindness

It was in the academic year 1716-17 that Vincent Bourne, at the age of twenty-two, was given the honor of composing the Cambridge tripos verses. It is an honor that reflects not only his distinction as Latin poet, but also the increasing esteem in which he was held at the university. The result was a reworking of the fable of Androcles and the Lion. Cast in Latin elegiacs, and exemplifying the prescribed dictum: Mutua Benevolentia Primaria Lex Naturae Est, the poem first appeared in printed form in the Carmina Comitalia Cantabrigiensia of 1721, a miniature anthology of such tripos verses compiled and edited by none other than Bourne himself.10 While shedding interesting light on Bourne's early editorial practices,11 the collection seems to evince a rather uncharacteristic attempt at self-promotion on the part of Bourne. For appended to the whole, and included under the heading Miscellanea, are no fewer than five of his other Latin poems.12 This act reflects a sense of pride in his youthful achievements, indicating perhaps that Bourne, or at least the twenty-two-year-old Bourne, was not content with the silence of anonymity for which he seemingly yearned in his twilight years.13 The collection itself moreover provides an important eighteenth-century context in which to view his contribution.

Even from a brief glance at the poems anthologized therein it is evident that such tripos verses were normally cast in Latin hexameters, and treated of scientific and inanimate themes, founded for the most part upon the rhetoric of logic, and expounding, for example, the rational basis for the existence of incorporeal beings,14 or the ebbing and flowing of the tides,15 or the inhabitability of the planets,16 or the workings of the telescope.17 In fact the characteristic tone of the collection as a whole is probably most accurately describable as neo-Lucretian throughout. Read in this context, Bourne's poem is noteworthy for its striking difference. Characterized by its superficial simplicity, this piece attests to his typical predilection for elegiacs over hexameters, and also to his seemingly perennial tendency to focus on animate (and indeed animal) themes as opposed to the purely abstract. …

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