Today NPR included a short segment on a tiny animal rights poem found in a footnote. Entitled, “The Mouse’s Petition to Dr. Priestley, Found in the Trap where he had been Confined all Night,” the poem was written by Anna Laetitia Aikin (later Barbauld), the lab assistant to Dr. Joseph Priestley (nicknamed Gunpowder Priestly). Priestley performed many experiments on mice while researching lung capacity during a time of heightened tuberculosis.
Anna did the dirty work of cleaning up the mouse carcasses and decided to write a poem on behalf of a mouse which would be the subject of the following day’s experiment. NPR includes a cartoonish version of the poem which I don’t believe does it justice.
That’s just one small bit of the poem. Here’s the poem in its entirety. It’s really beautiful, and without these childlike images of mice, it takes on a powerful voice of power, equality, and justice.
The issue of animal rights was far from young (you can learn about the Wiki version of animal rights here), but the issues of rights and freedom were definitely current, as the poem was written in 1773 (think revolutions). This poem was originally published in poetry collection written by Aikin/Barbauld, and you can read them all online here. <- That website actually includes several other links to scholarly works and websites on Aikin/Barbauld.
According to this University of Maryland site, the poem was reprinted in The Female Reader, written by feminist author Mary Wollstonecraft, and was a likely source of inspiration for Robert Burns’s “To a Mouse.” If you don’t know Wollstonecraft, you should, because she’s a righteous babe.
And yes, this was all recently rediscovered in a footnote in Richard Holmes’s book The Age of Wonder.
Listen to the NPR story here.