Lay of the Trilobite: A Crustacean’s Indictment of Humanity

The Longman Anthology includes this quote by John Morley, “it was the age of science, new knowledge, searching criticism, followed by multiple doubts and shaken beliefs.” The discoveries of Darwin and the accompanying implications of the contemporary early archaeology have thrown off thousands of years of faith in creationism and made them ridiculous.

May Kendall’s poem “The Lay of the Trilobite” playfully addresses humanity’s new-found upheaval over scientific revelations through the eyes of an ancient arthropod. “’How all your faiths are ghosts and dreams,/ How in the silent sea/ Your ancestors were Monotremes –/ Whatever these may be;/ How you evolved your shining lights/ Of wisdom and perfection/ From Jelly-Fish and Trilobites/ By Natural Selection” (l 25-32). The dismissal of the previously held beliefs as “ghosts and dreams” is excruciating to people who held creationism as not only true but holy up until now, and the apparently ridiculous new truth of natural selection is an especially hard pill to swallow with the ridiculous and degrading assertions that humans descended indirectly from plain animals: a monotreme (an animal that the speaker is unfamiliar with), jelly fish, and the comical and extinct trilobite.

In line 16 the speaker declares “And I should be a Man!” A triumphant statement in which the word man is capitalized and elevated, distinguishing its category above common nature. Up until Darwin’s proposals in On the Origin of Species, people were able to assume that their human form was indeed holy, made in God’s image. With the revelation the people may have simply evolved from beasts, educated society was thrown into tension. A theme strongly depicted in horror literature of the time is rooted in this new reality that humanity was not inherently separate from lower nature, including the absolute fear of regression. In The Island of Doctor Moreau, the titular Doctor attempts to construct new humans surgically from animals and watches them rapidly regress to their animalistic urges. Dracula, in contrast, fully embraces the holiness and nobility of man in an epic battle for the immortality of the human soul, in which the educated protagonists demonstrate their uniquely human nerve and unselfishness in the face of Dracula’s supernatural evil. May Kendall promptly pokes fun at both responses, pointing out the frenzied but circular nature of philosophy, saying “’You’ve Kant to make your brains go round,/ Hegel you have to clear them” (ll 33-34). Yet the Trilobite’s statement that “I never took to rhyme,” (l 54) Kendall draws attention to the absurdity of her own personification of the trilobite to prove a point, assuring readers that her own poem too is absurdist and should be given no more weight than any side of the argument.

In response to the Trilobite’s line “I didn’t care—I didn’t know/ That I was a Crustacean.’” Kendall includes the footnote that “He was not a Crustacean. He has since discovered that he was an Arachnid, or something similar. But he says it does not matter. He says they told him wrong once, and they may again.” Once again, Kendall’s Trilobite asserts that it does not matter. He ridicules both sides of the argument that humanity is so heavily invested in as pointless. Yet he refuses to fix his mistake. For the sake of a rhyme and correcting a technical inaccuracy of the poem, Kendall included this note, but it speaks so perfectly to the human resistance to changing a long-held view. As the Trilobite has observed, people don’t truly form an attachment to the logic of their stance but rather the simple familiarity of them. In this way, the scientific method is a deeply non-ergonomic design in which scientists continually readjust their beliefs and suspicions as to how the world works based off of new information. This naturally creates a distrust of the process that asks people to discard their old beliefs and never promises to be correct. It is uncomfortable, even to the Trilobite, who adopts a humanism in refusing to adjust his previous belief. (This same human tendency is represented in Dracula when Professor Van Helsing must slowly lead John Steward to the conclusion before him. Having built up the logic of one belief system all his life, Steward cannot bring himself to abandon it for the truth.)

One thought on “Lay of the Trilobite: A Crustacean’s Indictment of Humanity”

  1. Kendall’s footnote about how “they told him wrong once, they may again” also relates to all the labelling going on in Dracula. Though Seward has a crisis of faith, our heroes eventually get on board with Van Helsing’s ideas when he can give them a label, “the Undead” and logically explain himself. There are also a few times when a punchline is “so and so is a this!” like when Van Helsing says that by Arthur’s logic Lucy is a “polyandrist.” This is part of the broader Victorian theme of labelling people and things SO MUCH, like we can see in paleontology (like in this poem) and the law (“a” homosexual).

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