‘Crabs’ by Richmond Lattimore is a short poem that is formatted with a number of random end rhymes and half-rhymes. There is so consistent pattern that follows the entire length of the poem but there are a few scattered rhymes that help to unify the poem. One example includes the first, second, and eighth lines where the phrases ended with “-ed” but do not fully rhyme. Additionally, lines three and four rhyme as do lines eleven and fourteen and six and nine.
The poem begins with the character in the poem acquiring a bucket of crabs. The creatures inside the bucket are spilling over one another in an attempt to get free and return to their own world. The speaker describes the ocean in halting terms. It is not a vast beautiful ecosystem but one made out of “brown weed” and “round stone[s].” This description is the first clue to the speaker’s callousness.
One of the crabs from the bucket is able to escape and attempts to crawl through the grass. The speaker calls it a “marine thing.” It has so proper designation nor is there any recognition for its life. It is only a “thing.”
The bucket of crabs is then dumped, without pretense or ceremony, into a pot of boiling water. The other men in the piece, brought together by their need for companionship, ignore the scraping sounds coming from the metal pot and instead discuss how they want to fix the rest of their food. They drink, smoke, and happily converse with one another while only a few feet away the crabs are dying for them.
Analysis of Crabs
The speaker of this piece, who will reveal himself to be callous and unfeeling, begins by bluntly stating the situation.
There was a bucket full of them.
Before the speaker, placed carelessly on the ground, is a “bucket” filled to the brim with crabs. These crabs are still living and this presents a problem for the poet and those reading the poem, but not for the speaker.
The narrator describes a scene that under other circumstances would clearly be seen as horrifying and intolerably gruesome. The crabs are “spill[ing], “ and “crawl[ing], climb[ing].” They are desperate to escape from the bucket in which they are trapped. It is easy to imagine them clawing their way over one another in the hopes of freeing themselves. This image of desperation has been depicted not only to elicit sympathy from the reader for the plight of these creatures but to relate their situation to that of others.
Through this piece and the descriptions the poet gives of the crabs, it is clear that Lattimore is attempting to make the reader think about how humans treat any being they deem to be below them. Whether man, woman, child, or animal.
The speaker takes the next lines to describe where the crabs are coming from, “their own / world.” It is a world of “sand,” “brown weed[s]” and “round stone[s]” that have been smoothed by the chopping and waters of their coast.
This description is washed out and bland. It is another clue that the speaker could not care less about any world other than his own.
The poet continues, his speaker describes how in all the tossing and “clawing” to get free from the bucket, one does. It falls out and begins to make its way through the grass.
Lattimore uses the phrase “marine thing” to refer to the creature in this line. He is attempting to show the reader how alienated humans can become from other living beings. It is not referred to in any way that might elicit sympathy from the reader or any observers, it is not even a crab at this point, just a “thing.”
It is attempting to escape and find its way back to its sandy world. It is “trundl[ing] off,” and the speaker designates it once more. It is a “marine thing” and it is also “barbarian,” and “immaculate.” The crab is meant, “to be killed / with his kin.” The speaker is seeing the crab as being nothing more than what he and his companions are hoping to have for dinner. That is the crab’s sole purpose.
He continues on, stating that “We lit water,” or set water on a stove to boil, and “dumped the living mass / in.” The crawling, desperate bucket of crabs has now gone to their death.
All those present are consistent in their lack of regard for the suffering that is occurring before them, or the fact that they are the cause of it. Instead, they are deciding how exactly they’re going to cook the rest of their meal. The men are gathered together, experiencing a sense of companionship that only “civilized,” a notably ironic use of the word as they are torturing other living creatures, can experience.
Lines 12- 14
The “civilized” world in which they are living has provided them with the opportunity to smoke, drink “beer, and chatter” while they wait. Once more the poet is hoping to emphasize the cruelty and obliviousness with which the characters are acting. Their civility is based on their ability to kill other things and feel nothing. This feeling, that control over life and death, or the condition in which other lives, is what makes one civilized, is the problem that the poet is hoping to address. This way of living is unsustainable and has taken human beings farther from what we see as “civilized,” rather than closer.
The poem concludes with characters waiting for their meal to be done cooking, ten feet away from them. They are able to ignore the “clatter” of the crab’s claws against the metal pot, as they die “for us in their boiling can.”
About Richmond Lattimore
Richmond Lattimore was born in Paotingfu, China to an accomplished and multifaceted family. He attended Dartmouth College, Oxford, and later the University of Illinois where he received his Ph.D. in 1935. While at university Lattimore’s work focused on and utilized elements of classical writing. In addition to poetic works, Lattimore has translated a number of well known classical texts such as Homer’s Iliad, and the works of Euripides and Pindar.
He has received the Rockefeller Post-War Fellowship, a Fulbright, and has been elected to the Academy of American Poets.