In this classic poem, The Badger, Clare shows his mastery of meter and rhyme to make a compelling piece. The poem is ostensibly about animal cruelty, a topic covered often by Clare. In specific this one is about badger baiting. It is of its time and whilst not as “clever” as some of its more contemporary counterparts it still stirs great emotion with its grizzly content, especially in the second and third stanza where we see the badger standing up for himself despite the insurmountable odds.
Form and Tone of The Badger
The poem is written in three stanzas the first two consists of fourteen lines and the last stanza of twelve. The poem is written in iambic pentameter with a consistent rhyming pattern, using couplets (AABBCC…) although rhyme in contemporary poetry is often used to denote humor or joy, it was more frequently used in classical poetry, even in more somber poetry as is the case with this poem. This is somewhat bleak and chronicles the story of animals being used in badger baiting. A cruel blood sport where a badger is pulled from its home and repeatedly attacked by large dogs is a practice that, whilst illegal, is still occasionally practiced today.
Analysis of The Badger
The poem uses its strict form and repetition of the word “and” at the start of sentences to help portray a frenetic pace which mirrors the frantic happenings in the poem. Using the present-tense also aids in this endeavor. The poem paints the badger baiters in a cruel, unsympathetic light and characterizes the badger as being brave and stoic. Personifying it to some extent by giving it human characteristics.
When midnight comes a host of dogs and men
Go out and track the badger to his den,
And put a sack within the hole, and lie
Till the old grunting badger passes bye.
He comes and hears – they let the strongest loose.
The old fox hears the noise and drops the goose.
The poacher shoots and hurries from the cry,
And the old hare half wounded buzzes bye.
They get a forked stick to bear him down
And clap the dogs and take him to the town,
And bait him all the day with many dogs,
And laugh and shout and fright the scampering hogs.
He runs along and bites at all he meets:
They shout and hollo down the noisy streets.
In this first stanza, the narrator talks about the process of capturing the badger in the first place. As the baiters put a sack in the badger’s hole in order to capture him. The description of the badger is interesting as it is described as “old grunting” this almost personifies the badger and helps the reader to identify with it, thus creating sympathy. In fact, this is continued throughout the stanza with the fox being described as the “old fox” likewise the goose.
The badger baiters’ behavior is described in a way that makes it appear like they are euphoric as a result of their actions. They are accused of “laughing and shouting” and the given image is one of merriment on the part of the baiters which gives them a mob-like quality. In fact, their actions are so cruel as to make the predatory fox, drop his prey. The badger is described as biting all he meets. Perhaps unsurprisingly having been baited all day.
He turns about to face the loud uproar
And drives the rebels to their very door.
The frequent stone is hurled where’er they go;
When badgers fight, then everyone’s a foe.
The dogs are clapt and urged to join the fray;
The badger turns and drives them all away.
Though scarcely half as big, demure and small,
He fights with dogs for bones and beats them all.
The heavy mastiff, savage in the fray,
Lies down and licks his feet and turns away.
The bulldog knows his match and waxes cold,
The badger grins and never leaves his hold.
He drives the crowd and follows at their heels
And bites them through – the drunkard swears and reels.
In this stanza, the badger is shown to actually be fighting. The stanza begins by showing the reader the badger going after the baiters themselves. I think this emphasizes the bravery of the animal. The animal is portrayed as a fearless warrior. “When badgers fight, then everyone’s a foe”. Later in the stanza, the mastiff is described as savage. Despite the fact that badgers can become very aggressive when attacked, hence why they have been used in blood sports, the badger is depicted as brave, taking on all-comers. The narrator emphasizes his small stature and that in spite of this he still seems able to conquer the dogs that he faces. Throughout the poem, the humans and other animals are described with negative connotations. This is done to make a contrast between the noble bravery of the outnumbered badger and his heinous foes.
The frighted women take the boys away,
The blackguard laughs and hurries on the fray.
He tries to reach the woods, and awkward race,
But sticks and cudgels quickly stop the chace.
He turns agen and drives the noisy crowd
And beats the many dogs in noises loud.
He drives away and beats them every one,
And then they loose them all and set them on.
He falls as dead and kicked by boys and men,
Then starts and grins and drives the crowd agen;
Till kicked and torn and beaten out he lies
And leaves his hold and cackles, groans, and dies.
This stanza details the Badger’s eventual demise. The first line suggests that the contest has become so brutal as to frighten mothers who in turn decide that the display is too violent for their children and therefore remove them from proceedings so as a toy does not expose them further. In the next line, it reveals the blackguard laughs. This is a dated insult, but it basically describes somebody that is considered to be dishonorable. In the following lines, we can see the badger tries to escape but the humans use weapons to try and prevent this, which then prompts the badger to once again go after the humans. Another example of the animal’s bravery in face of such disparate odds.
We see the beast’s ferocious side, but this is portrayed as an iron will, as despite the dog attacks and the constant kicks from the onlooking humans the badger still managers to drive at his aggressors before finally lying down and accepting his death. It is hard not to feel a sense of relief on behalf of the badger that his ordeal is over, The list of punishments the animal has to endure is horrific.
About John Clare
John Clare is a British poet who died in 1864 at the age of 70. His poetry was influenced massively by nature, making him a classic example of a romantic poet. This is perhaps unsurprisingly given as he was the son of a farmer. He was known as the ‘peasant poet’ due to his lowly class. But is now revered as one of Britain’s most important poets of the 19th century.