The Hedgehog

My earliest memories of hedgehogs are of dead hedgehogs- like most people’s, I guess: flattened brown shapes, fleshy pink at the edges, decorating the dusty tarmac of suburban roads. Yet despite these tragi-comic deaths, the creatures maintained their air of wonder and mystery, and each of my few encounters with a living hedgehog has been memorable in its way.

There were those vague shapes in our garden at night shuffling their way to the bread and milk we had left out for them (apparently we shouldn’t have, for it plays havoc with their digestion, though back then we thought it nutritious hedgehog fare). There was the one I saw on a bank in Jesmond Dene and picked up only to find it crawling with ticks and fleas. And, one sunny spring, the whole family of hedgehogs that colonised the space underneath our ramshackle garden shed, wandering around our garden freely, unconcerned by our cats, who could never quite work out what to do about them. The following spring they were gone.

It was recently reported that hedgehog numbers in the UK have dropped, precipitously, I think the word was. It is certainly noticeable that there are fewer flattened hedgehogs to be spotted these days, never mind living ones. Conservationists think there are a number of factors, the ever- increasing road traffic being just one. Another major factor is the increased efficiency of land use in both farms and gardens: hedgehogs like hedgerows, piles of wood, ramshackle sheds and dead trees; they can crawl under wooden fences, but not through mesh wire; they live at the edges of human environments, but only given that those edges are benignly neglected.

Back in John Clare’s day, hedgehogs faced a rather different set of problems, though still problems rooted in their relationship with the humans they shared their land with:

 

The Hedgehog

 

The hedgehog hides beneath the rotten hedge

And makes a great round nest of grass and sedge

Or in a bush or in a hollow tree

And many often stops and say they see

Him roll and fill his prickles full of crabs

And creep away and where the magpie dabs

His wing at muddy dyke in aged root

He makes a nest and fills it full of fruit

On the hedge bottom hunts for crabs and sloes

And whistles like a cricket as he goes

It rolls up like a ball or shapeless hog

When gipseys hunt it with their noisey dogs

I’ve seen it in their camps they call it sweet

Though black and bitter and unsavoury meat

 

But they who hunt the field for rotten meat

And wash in muddy dyke and call it sweet

And eat what dogs refuse wheree’er they dwell

Care little either for the taste or smell

They say they milk the cows and when they lye

Nibble their fleshy teats and make them dry

But they who’ve seen the small head like a hog

Rolled up to meet the savage of a dog

With mouth scarce big enough to hold a straw

Will ne’er believe what no none ever saw

But still they hunt the hedges all about

And shepherd dogs are trained to hunt them out

They hurl with savage force the stick and stone

And no one cares and still the strife goes on

 

 

Clare is a great observer of nature, but this poem is as much a record of the fictions surrounding the hedgehog as of its real life. ‘Many say they see’ the hedgehog roll on the ground to pick up sloe-berries and crab apples on its prickles – a totally imaginary function of the hedgehog’s prickles, and one that owes more to the practical-minded thoughts of rural folk than the actual habits of the earth-worm and beetle munching hedgehog. Then there is the rather grotesque fiction that hedgehogs would suck the teats of sleeping cows thus robbing us of our milk. This mistaken association between hedgehogs and milk perhaps explains why, up to the 80s (when we found out it played havoc with their digestive systems), we would leave it in dishes for them in our gardens. But in Clare’s time, this had more perilous consequences, with ‘they who hunt the field’ (this refers to the gypsies mentioned in the previous stanza) sending their dogs after them.

Clare counters this fiction with the observation that the hedgehog’s mouth is ‘scarce big enough to hold a straw’, and yet the gypsies – and shepherds too, it seems- are determined to keep on persecuting the creatures: ‘and still’ he ends his poem ‘the strife goes on’. This is one of the danker and dirtier of Clare’s nature poems, and more savage too, full of mud and dirt and conflict. But there is always, in Clare’s poetry, a sympathy with his subjects, and a particular identification with the persecuted.

It should be noted that, although they are the villains of this piece, Clare also held a great affinity with the gypsies who camped in the woods in his native Northamptonshire. The poem shows how intimate he is with their ways of life and their beliefs, though he shares neither. It was to their camp that he fled upon escaping from his confinement in an insane asylum in the latter, unhappier part of his life. This poem, though from an earlier part of his life, foreshadows this unhappiness. The closing line may lament the fate of the hedgehog, but it seems to strike a more general lament too – at  the intransigence of belief, the cruelty of custom and the harshness and violence that seems to be innate in the world.

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4 Comments

Filed under Poetry

4 responses to “The Hedgehog

  1. Some people think hedgehogs are like our North American groundhogs, but really they’re quite different. The groundhog who came shyly to have her babies and munch on the fresh lettuce in our back garden was certainly more fugitive than the “critter” Clare describes…. certainly not a consumer of earth worms and beetles, but very much the vegetarian. The main folklore we seem to have kept about our groundhog is “Groundhog Day” when a supposed real groundhog named “Punxatawny Phil” emerges from his burrow in early February to forecast how many more weeks of winter we will have, depending upon whether or not he sees his shadow. The verdict is usually announced all across the USA and regaled by grown men wearing top hats. Here in New England, “woodchuck” is synonymous with “groundhog” and we have the children’s tongue twister: “How much wood could a woodchuck chuck, if a woodchuck could chuck wood?”
    Clare’s poem is certainly grittier, and does well all the things that you point to.

    • I have always wondered what a woodchuck was. ‘Woodchuck Day’ doesn’t quite have the same ring, does it? The American animal I most associate with hedgehogs though, is the porcupine. I remember thinking of a porcupine as a kind of giant, more fearsome hedgehog the first time I read about one- and yearning in that childish way to live in a country like America with more fearsome, larger mammals (although now I couldn’t think of anything worse than having one’s afternoon constitutional interrupted by a bear or a cougar). In Korea, they have the same word for hedgehog and a porcupine – which is a bit like having the same word for a groundhog and a hamster… but then again, they don’t have either in Korea.

  2. I enjoyed reading your post, and the John Clare poem, yesterday and came back to comment this morning – to find Cynthia Jobin’s post as an interesting bonus. I remember the film “Groundhog Day”, and the woodchuck tongue twister also. Clare’s poem I feel I ought to know but can’t swear to having read before. His observation and knowledge are formidable aren’t they? You are right to point us to the savagery contained in this, and other, of his nature poems; and to the myths. Reading it is to re-enter an earlier epoch I feel.

  3. Yes, one of the things that impresses me about Clare, aside from his poetry, is his familiarity with the habits of animals. How did he get to observe them so closely before there were such things as binoculars – or nature documentaries for that matter?

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