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Short poem

Anna Lætitia Barbauld (1743-1825)

The Caterpillar

              1No, helpless thing, I cannot harm thee now;
              2Depart in peace, thy little life is safe,
              3For I have scanned thy form with curious eye,
              4Noted the silver line that streaks thy back,
              5The azure and the orange that divide
              6Thy velvet sides; thee, houseless wanderer,
              7My garment has enfolded, and my arm
              8Felt the light pressure of thy hairy feet;
              9Thou hast curled round my finger; from its tip,
            10Precipitous descent! with stretched out neck,
            11Bending thy head in airy vacancy,
            12This way and that, inquiring, thou hast seemed
            13To ask protection; now, I cannot kill thee.
            14Yet I have sworn perdition to thy race,
            15And recent from the slaughter am I come
            16Of tribes and embryo nations: I have sought
            17With sharpened eye and persecuting zeal,
            18Where, folded in their silken webs they lay
            19Thriving and happy; swept them from the tree
            20And crushed whole families beneath my foot;
            21Or, sudden, poured on their devoted heads
            22The vials of destruction.--This I've done
            23Nor felt the touch of pity: but when thou,--
            24A single wretch, escaped the general doom,
            25Making me feel and clearly recognise
            26Thine individual existence, life,
            27And fellowship of sense with all that breathes,--
            28Present'st thyself before me, I relent,
            29And cannot hurt thy weakness.--So the storm
            30Of horrid war, o'erwhelming cities, fields,
            31And peaceful villages, rolls dreadful on:
            32The victor shouts triumphant; he enjoys
            33The roar of cannon and the clang of arms,
            34And urges, by no soft relentings stopped,
            35The work of death and carnage. Yet should one,
            36A single sufferer from the field escaped,
            37Panting and pale, and bleeding at his feet,
            38Lift his imploring eyes,-- the hero weeps;
            39He is grown human, and capricious Pity,
            40Which would not stir for thousands, melts for one
            41With sympathy spontaneous:-- 'Tis not Virtue,
            42Yet 'tis the weakness of a virtuous mind.

Online text copyright © 2003, Ian Lancashire for the Department of English, University of Toronto.
Published by the Web Development Group, Information Technology Services, University of Toronto Libraries.

Original text: The Works of Anna Lætitia Barbauld, Volume I (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, Brown, and Green, Paternoster-Row, 1825), pp. 278-80. PR 4057 B7 1825 v.1. Robarts Library.
First publication date: 1825
RPO poem editor: Ian Lancashire
RP edition: RPO 1997.
Recent editing: 4:2002/1/18

Composition date: 1816
Composition date note: See McCarthy and Kraft
Form: Blank Verse

Other poems by Anna Lætitia Barbauld