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Anna Letitia Barbauld [née Aikin]

William McCarthy (ed.), The Collected Works of Anna Letitia Barbauld, Vol. 1: The Poems, Revised

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Critical Apparatuspg 46Critical Apparatus14. THE MOUSE'S PETITION*

William Turner dated this poem to the visit to Leeds in the summer of 1769 that produced 'An Address to the Deity' and 'Verses written on the Leaves of an Ivory Pocket-Book' (Poems 15 and 18). Joseph Priestley was then experimenting with different kinds of gas, using live mice to test their effects. As Turner tells it, one night a mouse 'was brought in after supper, too late for any experiment to be made with it that night, and the servant was desired to set it by till next morning. Next morning it was brought in after breakfast, with its petition twisted among the wires of its cage. It scarcely need be added, that the petition was successful'—i.e. that Priestley released the mouse ('Mrs. Barbauld', 184). According to his most recent biographer, Priestley began investigating gases even before he left Warrington (Schofield, 260); hence 1769 is a possible date for the poem, and it need not be moved to 1771, the date assigned it in PALB by reference to letters from Priestley to Benjamin Franklin describing his work. The text is compatible with Turner's date.

In his History of Electricity (1767) Priestley had described experiments on animals and admitted that 'it is paying dear for philosophical discoveries, to purchase them at the expense of humanity' (2:259). Reviewers of Poems remembered this when they came to 'The Mouse's Petition'. The Critical Review wrote, 'The next poem is, The Mouse's Petition, found in the Trap where he had been confined all night, by the humane Dr P. to be tortured by electrical experiments.—We heartily commend the lady's humanity for endeavouring to extricate the little wretch from misery, and gladly take this opportunity to testify our abhorrence of the cruelty practised by experimental philosophers, who seem to think the brute creation void of sensibility, or created only for them to torment' (Review of Poems, 193). William Woodfall hoped that the poem 'will be of service to that gentleman [Priestley] as well as other experimental philosophers, who are not remarkable for their humanity to the poor harmless animals, that are so ill-fated as to fall in their way' (58). To these reviews Barbauld responded by adding a footnote to the poem's title in Poems, edn 3: 'The Author is concerned to find, that what was intended as the petition of mercy against justice, has been construed as the plea of humanity against cruelty. She is certain that cruelty could never be apprehended from the Gentleman to whom this is addressed; and the poor animal would have suffered more as the victim of domestic economy [i.e. of pg 47a mouse trap], than of philosophical curiosity.' The footnote was reprinted in edns 4–5, then dropped.

That the poem came to be construed politically, as a plea for liberty, is suggested by an imitation, 'Verses, Supposed to have been written by a captive Dormouse': it opens, 'O Liberty! Liberty!' (European Magazine, 52 [1807]: 62). That the poem was also construed as ethical instruction is evidenced by an engraving made in 1791 for Thomas Macklin's 'Series of prints, illustrative of the most celebrated british poets': by Francesco Bartolozzi, the print shows Priestley and a boy being instructed about the mouse by two female figures probably representing Sensibility and Barbauld.

No holograph is known. 'The Mouse's Petition' was published in Poems, edns 1–5 and 1792 (37–40); Works, 1:35–8; and PALB, as Poem 19. It enjoyed many reprints, four in 1773 alone (the Westminster, London, and Oxford Magazines, and the Annual Register); and in Poems by eminent Ladies (1780), the Lady's Poetical Magazine (1781), Mary Wollstonecraft's Female Reader (1789), the General Magazine (1790), The British Poetical Miscellany (Huddersfield, 1799), Lucy Aikin's Poetry for Children (1801, abridged), The Naturalist's Poetical Companion (1833), and Lucy Aikin's revision of her father's Select Works of the British Poets (1843). It became a set piece for children to memorize (Murch, 72).

Fig. 4 'The Mouse's Petition'. Engraving by Francesco Bartolozzi from a drawing by Henry William Bunbury, 1791. © the Trustees of the British Museum. Reproduced by permission.


Fig. 4 'The Mouse's Petition'. Engraving by Francesco Bartolozzi from a drawing by Henry William Bunbury, 1791. © the Trustees of the British Museum. Reproduced by permission.

pg 48At least nine readers copied the poem into albums. Three copies agree with the text in Poems, edns 1–2, and suggest that the poem circulated widely: by Catherine Loverel Salmon in an album she began in America in 1770 (John Hay Library, Brown University); by James Forbes, 1770s, in Bombay (Osborn Shelves fc132/1, Beinecke); and by John Dovaston in Jamaica, 1773 or 1774 (Osborn Shelves C481). A copy of Poems is known to have reached Boston before November 1773 (Ann Hulton to Mrs Adam Lightbody, n.d. but before 25 Nov.; Hulton, 61); whether this poem circulated through Poems or in manuscript is not known. Other copies: 'Poems. Comic and Serious. 1773' (Osborn Shelves C487, Beinecke); Andrew Douglas album, c.1780 (MS Adv. 17.1.11, National Library of Scotland); 'Master Claydons' (Add. MS 6664, Cambridge Univ. Library); M.a. 179, Folger (c.1800); Margaretta Heineken (Gen MSS, Vol. 498, Beinecke); Holland House Papers (MS Add. 51947, BL).

  • 5For here forlorn and sad I sit,
  • 6Within the wiry grate;
  • 7And tremble at th' approaching morn,
  • 8Which brings impending fate.
  • 9If e'er thy breast with freedom glow'd,
  • Editor’s Note10And spurn'd a tyrant's chain,
  • 11Let not thy strong oppressive force
  • Editor’s Note12A free-born mouse detain.
  • 13Oh! do not stain with guiltless blood
  • 14Thy hospitable hearth;
  • 15Nor triumph that thy wiles betray'd
  • 16A prize so little worth.
  • 21The cheerful light, the vital air,
  • 22Are blessings widely given;
  • 23Let nature's commoners enjoy
  • 24The common gifts of heaven.
  • 25The well-taught philosophic mind
  • 26To all compassion gives;
  • 27Casts round the world an equal eye,
  • 28And feels for all that lives.
  • Editor’s Note29If mind, as antient sages taught,
  • 30A never dying flame,
  • 31Still shifts thro' matter's varying forms,
  • 32In every form the same,
  • 33Beware, lest in the worm you crush
  • 34A brother's soul you find;
  • 35And tremble lest thy luckless hand
  • 36Dislodge a kindred mind.
  • 37Or, if this transient gleam of day
  • 38Be all of life we share,
  • Editor’s Note39Let pity plead within thy breast
  • 40That little all to spare.
  • 41So may thy hospitable board
  • 42With health and peace be crown'd;
  • 43And every charm of heartfelt ease
  • 44Beneath thy roof be found.


* Found in the trap where he had been confined all night by Dr. Priestley, for the sake of making experiments with different kinds of air.

Notes Settings


Critical Apparatus
Title and footnote: P1792-Works. P1–5 read 'The Mouse's Petition,* Found in the Trap where he had been confined (confin'd P1–3) all Night' as title, and '*To Doctor Priestley' as footnote.
Critical Apparatus
Motto: absent in Works
Editor’s Note
Motto: Aeneid, 6:853. To spare the humbled, and to tame in war the proud!
Critical Apparatus
All lines flush left P1–5, P1792] Alternate lines indented Works
Critical Apparatus
1 prisoner's] captive's P1–2
Critical Apparatus
4 wretch's] prisoner's P1–2
Editor’s Note
10 'spurn'd … chain': In The Present State of Liberty in Great Britain and her Colonies (1769), Priestley argued for 'a just idea of their natural and civil rights' and denounced the government for attempting to 'enslave' the Colonists (JP, Political Writings, 129 and Section III).
Editor’s Note
12 'free-born mouse': Alluding to a cant phrase, 'free-born Englishman', used by political liberals, as in James Thomson's indignant line, 'The free-born BRITON to the dungeon chain'd' (Winter, l. 371 [Thomson, 1:176]). A character in Frances Burney's novel Cecilia (1782) defines it concisely: '[A] free-born Englishman is his own master by the nature of the law' (Burney, 750).
Critical Apparatus
17 gleanings P1–3, P5-Works] gleanings, P4
Critical Apparatus
18 frugal] scanty P1–2
Editor’s Note
29–32 'If mind … same': Alluding probably to James Thomson's plea for 'animal rights' in Liberty (1735), 3:63–8: 'He [Pythagoras] taught that life's indissoluble flame, / From brute to man, and man to brute again, / For ever shifting, runs th' eternal round; / Thence try'd against the blood-polluted meal … To turn the human heart' (Thomson, 1:279). Pythagoreanism was thought to carry implications for species equality: 'the disciples of Pythagoras', Lucy Aikin noted, 'abstained from crushing even a worm, for fear of dispossessing some kindred soul' ('On the Spirit of Aristocracy', MML, 33). Priestley, however, did not believe in the doctrine of the transmigration of souls; he had just cited it as a reason for rejecting the idea that Christ's soul was created before his body (Schofield, 199–200). Probably he and Aikin had discussed transmigration; in these lines she seems to chide him with the possibility that he might be wrong.
Editor’s Note
39–40 'Let pity … spare': Quoted in support of a plea against the use of animals as experimental subjects (A Rev, 2 [1804]: 867).
Critical Apparatus
45 So, … unseen] So when unseen destruction lurks P1–2
Critical Apparatus
46 men, like mice, P1792-Works] men like mice P1–5
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