Fytte V: Lex Talionis

[A Moral Discourse]


‘And if there’s blood upon his hand,

‘Tis but the blood of deer.’—W. Scott.


TO beasts of the field, and fowls of the air,

And fish of the sea alike,

Man’s hand is ever slow to spare,

And ever ready to strike ;

With a license to kill, and to work our will,

In season by land or by water,

To our heart’s content we may take our fill

Of the joys we derive from slaughter.


And few, I reckon, our rights gainsay

In this world of rapine and wrong,

Where the weak and the timid seem lawful prey

For the resolute and the strong ;

Fins, furs, and feathers, they are and were

For our use and pleasure created,

We can shoot, and hunt, and angle, and snare,

Unquestioned, if not unsated.


I have neither the will nor the right to blame,

Yet to many (though not to all)

The sweets of destruction are somewhat tame,

When no personal risks befall ;

Our victims suffer but little, we trust

(Mere guesswork and blank enigma),

If they suffer at all, our field sports must

Of cruelty bear the stigma.


Shall we, hard-hearted to their fates, thus

Soft-hearted shrink from our own,

When the measure we mete is meted to us,

When we reap as we’ve always sown ?

Shall we who for pastime have squander’d life,

Who are styled ‘the Lords of Creation’,

Recoil from our chance of more equal strife,

And our risk of retaliation ?


Though short is the dying pheasant’s pain,

Scant pity you well may spare,

And the partridge slain is a triumph vain,

And a risk that a child may dare ;

You feel, when you lower the smoking gun,

Some ruth for yon slaughtered hare,

And hit or miss, in your selfish fun

The widgeon has little share.


But you’ve no remorseful qualms or pangs

When you kneel by the grizzly’s lair,

On that conical bullet your sole chance hangs,

‘Tis the weak one’s advantage fair,

And the shaggy giant’s terrific fangs

Are ready to crush and tear

Should you miss, one vision of home and friends,

Five words of unfinish’d prayer,

Three savage knife stabs, so your sport ends

In the worrying grapple that chokes and rends ;—

Rare sport, at least, for the bear.


Short shrift ! sharp fate ! dark doom to dree !

Hard struggle, though quickly ending !

At home or abroad, by land or sea,

In peace or war, sore trials must be,

And worse may happen to you or to me,

For none are secure, and none can flee

From a destiny impending.


Ah ! friend, did you think when the London sank.

Timber by timber, plank by plank,

In a cauldron of boiling surf,

How alone at least, with never a flinch,

In a rally contested inch by inch,

You could fall on the trampled turf ?

When a livid wall of the sea leaps high,

In the lurid light of a leaden sky,

And bursts on the quarter railing ;

While the howling storm-gust seems to vie

With the crash of splintered beams that fly,

Yet fails too oft to smother the cry

Of women and children wailing ?


Then those who listen in sinking ships

To despairing sobs from their lov’d one’s lips,

Where the green wave thus slowly shatters,

May long for the crescent-claw that rips

The bison into ribbons and strips,

And tears the strong elk to tatters.


Oh ! sunderings short of body and breath !

Oh ! ‘battle and murder and sudden death !’

Against which the Liturgy preaches ;

By the will of a just, yet a merciful Power,

Less bitter, perchance, in the mystic hour,

When the wings of the shadowy angel lower,

Than man in his blindness teaches !


Published in ‘Sea Spray and Smoke Drift’ (1867).