A Trilobite Speaks -- Susan Price

The trilobite in his rocky bed. Photo: Wikimedia

The Lay of the Trilobite

by May Kendall
A mountain’s giddy height I sought,
Because I could not find
Sufficient vague and mighty thought
To fill my mighty mind;
And as I wandered ill at ease,
There chanced upon my sight
A native of Silurian seas,
An ancient Trilobite.

So calm, so peacefully he lay,
I watched him e'en with tears:
I thought of Monads far away
In the forgotten years.
How wonderful it seemed and right,
The providential plan,
That he should be a Trilobite,
And I should be a Man!

And then, quite natural and free
Out of his rocky bed,
That Trilobite he spoke to me
And this is what he said:
‘I don’t know how the thing was done,
Although I cannot doubt it;
But Huxley – he if anyone
Can tell you all about it;

‘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.

‘You’ve Kant to make your brains go round,
Hegel you have to clear them,
You’ve Mr Browning to confound,
And Mr Punch to cheer them!
The native of an alien land
You call a man and brother,
And greet with hymn-book in one hand
And pistol in the other!

‘You’ve Politics to make you fight
As if you were possessed:
You’ve cannon and you’ve dynamite
To give the nations rest:
The side that makes the loudest din
Is surest to be right,
And oh, a pretty fix you’re in!’
Remarked the Trilobite.

‘But gentle, stupid, free from woe
I lived among my nation,
I didn’t care – I didn’t know
That I was a Crustacean.*
I didn’t grumble, didn’t steal,
I never took to rhyme:
Salt water was my frugal meal,
And carbonate of lime.’

Reluctantly I turned away,
No other word he said;
An ancient Trilobite, he lay
Within his rocky bed.
I did not answer him, for that
Would have annoyed my pride:
I merely bowed, and raised my hat,
But in my heart I cried: –

‘I wish our brains were not so good,
I wish our skulls were thicker,
I wish that Evolution could
Have stopped a little quicker;
For oh, it was a happy plight,
Of liberty and ease,
To be a simple Trilobite
In the Silurian seas!’
  • He was not a Crustacean. He has since discovered 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.

May Kendall
I came on
The Lay of the Trilobite by accident and loved it at once. It first appeared in Punch, and May Kendall was one of the first, and few, women contributors to the magazine.

Not much is known about her. She was born in Yorkshire in 1861, the daughter of a Wesleyan minister. The family moved a great deal as her father was shifted from parish to parish. She studied at Somerville but sat no exam. She spent most of her life in York where, as a committed socialist, she joined the York Fabian Society, working with the Joseph Rowntree Society to expose social injustices.

She died in 1943, aged 82. Her cause of death is given as 'Senile.'

If you want to learn a little more of the little known about her, try this article.

I post Lay of the Trilobite here, both as a tribute to Kendall (a trilobitic tribute) and as proof that people don't change much. On this side of the Atlantic, we have an utterly incompetent, disastrous Tory goverment, headed by that unelected lying buffoon, Johnson-- and they hold an overall majority and can continue to trash our country for years to come. On the other side of the Atlantic, Trump has just flounced out of the White House in an infantile tantrum, refusing to attend his successor's inauguration and leaving behind him the still simmering and dangerous remains of a failed coup.

And then there's the pandemic, created by our stupidity, spread by our stupidity and in the face of which our government has been scandalously, criminally ineffective-- though some of their mates have filled their boots at our expense.

Oh, how wholeheartedly I agree with the trilobite. We and the planet would be much happier if we'd stayed among our trilobite kin, keenly looking forward to nothing more than our next bite of salt water with carbonate of lime.
If the trilobite could peep from its rocky bed at our present predicament, it might well repeat, "Oh what a pretty fix you're in!"

Susan Price is the Carnegie winning author of The Ghost Drum and the Guardian Prize winning author of The Sterkarm Handshake. 


Sandra Horn said…
Totally brilliant poem - thanks for sharing it! However, I don't believe you, Sue, when you say you wish evolution had stopped earlier. OK there's Trump, etc; there are tories, there is covid, climate change and who knows what else to come - but there are hordes of brilliant, inventive, loving, creative people too, like you,and that's grounds for hope and joy. I don't need to tell you that, though, not really.
Wendy H. Jones said…
What a beautiful poem. Thanks for sharing. I do believe there is still hope in the world and love the fact I can meet people globally, despite national lockdown. We live in a very different world indeed.
I just feel happy, Susan, that someone else has been so blunt and straight about the present time - not miserable or confused, but saying it like it is, and with humour and the wonderful poem. Yes, yes, yes to all you say. Adding only that if there is hope - and we hope there is hope (ha!) it will come only if everyone 'pulls together' by being sensible, putting up with isolated living, supporting our NHS and supporting with equal care and consideration and those who have to work to keep us all fed, watered, have our bins emptied, etc ('it's the little things...' etc - here, how true...). May Kelly sounds a great woman of her time: has anyone else read Barbara Kingsolver's Unsheltered? There you will find an American 'version' in the person of Mary Treat (who if I remember correctly is a real historical person, & who corresponded with Darwin)? An early female biologist and ecologist. Interesting... Thanks Susan for a great, thoughtful, piece.
Peter Leyland said…
Great post Susan. You tap into our collective anger at the present situation. I am a great believer that poetry can often articulate the inexplicable and this poem gives us lots to think about. Thanks
Griselda Heppel said…
I LOVED this poem, thank you so much for introducing me to it and its clever, witty author who deserves to be much better known (or even known at all - ashamed to say I'd never heard of her). In the style of Lewis Carroll with an authoritative flair and sense of absurdity all her own. I see she wrote novels too - wonder if they can be tracked down.
Jan Needle said…
I'm with the others, Sue. Brilliant. Thanks
Reb MacRath said…
I'm late to the party here, but please add my voice to the others: great posst and great poem. Who needs morning coffee after a wake-up call like this?
Susan Price said…
Thank you all for your thoughtful responses.
Eden Baylee said…
Hi Susan, the poem is beautiful, and it's interesting there is not a lot about its author. She's definitely worth checking out.


"Politics to make you fight as if you were possessed..." So true! I'm coming back as a trilobite.

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