Lex Talionis - A Moral Discourse

A poem by Adam Lindsay Gordon

“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 guess-work 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 unfinished 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!

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