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The Grey Squirrel -- Humbert Wolfe

Guest poem submitted by Aseem Kaul:
(Poem #766) The Grey Squirrel
 Like a small grey
 coffee-pot,
 sits the squirrel.
 He is not

 all he should be,
 kills by dozens
 trees, and eats
 his red-brown cousins.

 The keeper on the
 other hand,
 who shot him, is
 a Christian, and

 loves his enemies,
 which shows
 the squirrel was not
 one of those.
-- Humbert Wolfe
I can't pretend to have read very much Wolfe - in fact, this is about the
only poem I have read - finding it in anthology long ago. But this is a poem
I've never been able to forget, not only because the wonderful combination
of short lines and a simple rhyme pattern clings to me and makes me tingle
all over rather as though a whole host of laughing squirrels were chattering
away inside me, but also because it so wonderfully exposes the hypocrisy of
organised religion. Whenever someone asks me to explain the meaning of
'tongue in cheek', I have an urge to quote this to them.

Aseem.

35 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Matthew Chanoff said...

Hi, yes, my comment is that this page is getting too god-damned long to
download. If you have the inclination, I would appreciate your dividing
it up, maybe by year or something.

Matt

James M Hamilton said...

This poem is a masterpiece. Short, poignant, philosophical. Terrific base for deep discussions about how Christianity can be confused and corrupted. So why isn't there more information on the poet? Why isn't this poem included in more anthologies? It is absolutely brilliant. One can't forget it. And one can't ever stop thinking about it and its implications for the world and how enemies and friends are treated.

Allan Brame said...

So pleased to come across this poem. It had a huge impact on me when I found it in a school anthology in the 1960s. This is the first time I have seen it since. Thank you.
Allan Brame

Betty Deiter said...

I was delighted to find this poem after a lengthy search on the internet. It had been running through my mind, but I was uncertain of one or two words, and the poet. Finding it really saved a day I had rued, and two of the previous comments expressed perfectly what I had been thinking.
Betty Deiter

CinCity14 said...

Hello,

I have a book by Humbert Wolfe that he signed. It is "Homage To
Meleager" It's his 20th copy that he signed. I am just wondering about the
Author? I love his work.

Cynthia

Erica Leung said...

Hi
I've been reading this poem for a whlie now, and can't seem to analyze it properly. Can you tell me what this poem is about? Is it religion? or is it a friendship gone bad? Please I am trying to understand it and it's driving me nuts!! I hope to hear from you a.s.a.p.
Thank you in advance

Erica

Martin DeMello said...

--- Erica Leung wrote:
> Hi
> I've been reading this poem for a whlie now, and can't seem to analyze it
> properly. Can you tell me what this poem is about? Is it religion? or is it
> a friendship gone bad? Please I am trying to understand it and it's driving
> me nuts!! I hope to hear from you a.s.a.p.

It's about the hypocrisy of some Christians. The squirrel is "not all he should
be" because he kills trees and his "red-brown cousins" - and if you examine the
history of Christianity (or even take a look at some of the people around
today), you can see similar attitudes countlessly duplicated. And then there's
the twist in the tail, the reminder that Christians ostensibly 'love their
enemies' - but seem to remember their religion only when it comes to pointing a
finger at others.

Boublil and Schonberg's "Martin Guerre" had a more explicit take on this:

Who are the imposters here?
Christians who would hunt and seize us
Worshipping the bloodied spear
Killing in the name of Jesus...

martin

Len Black said...

Dear Ms. Bedeiter,

I wonder if you could supply the name of a Humbold Wolfe poem that goes

"For to have loved you is an action molding all that I am and setting me apart,
As though you were a rose and I a bud unfolding in the silence of your heart"

... or something like it.

Thanks very much.

Leonard Black.

kevin Peters said...

I'm having difficulty understanding the line" He is not all he should be",
is the author saying that the squirrel is not a Christian?

Thank you in advance.

Sammy.

Matt Chanoff said...

Re the line: "he is not/All he should be.."

My take is that it's an ironic turn on all those poems about the wonders of
nature. We romanticize these animals. Well, the squirrel in this poem isn't
very romantic. He looks like a coffee pot, and doesn't have the character
you would expect in such a poem (playful, agile, industrious, etc.) Instead,
he's brutal. That's the first twist in the poem, and sets up, as Martin
points out, the last twist, which to me means "Well, the squirrel isn't our
idealized squirrel, but then the Christian isn't exactly our idealized
Christian either, is he?" One of the most charming things about this poem,
to me, is that the twists in the meaning mimic the twists of a squirrel's
path, and the sharpness, brutality, even, of the comment on Christianity by
the poet, echoes the brutality of the squirrel.

Matt Chanoff

Edward said...

Humbert Wolfe was born to Jewish parents, his mother from Italy and his father I believe from Germany. He lived in England where he converted to Christianity. The poem "The Gray Squirrel" (published in 1924) is facetious, not satirical. Wolfe is poking (light-hearted) fun at both Christianity and the theory of evolution. According to (post-Darwin) evolutionary theory, life on Earth only began once. Once life evolved to a s), writers began to see the humor in the situation. Robert Frost
wrote his poem "The Rose Family" (published in 1928) concerning the fact that, according to evolutionary theory, all members of the same taxonomic "family" were very closely related -- by common descent. Botany classes were teaching that apples were really roses, as were pears, plums, peaches, even strawberries and that is why all these plants were placed in the rose family.

The Rose Family

The rose is a rose,
And was always a rose.
But the theory now goes
That the apple’s a rose,
And the pear is, and so’s
The plum, I suppose.
The dear only knows
What will next prove a rose.
You, of course, are a rose --
But were always a rose.

Robert Frost (from West-Running Brook: 1928)

Wolfe sees the humor in the theory of evolution and the "fact of common descent" when combined with Christianity (which he had converted to) and, because the squirrel is "our" cousin, includes it in the human moral community. In science, giving animals human characteristics is called "anthropomorphism" and is frowned upon as "bad science," but it the literary world, it is called "personification" and is considered quite acceptable. Let's see, since the squirrel is our cousin, we should consider him to be part of the human moral community, but when he is eating acorns (and nuts) he is eating his other cousins. Shame on Mr. squirrel! He is not all that he should be. But the keeper, as a Christian, is exempt from this restriction because he only has to love his enemies. This is rich humor, which is why The Gray Squirrel is one of my favorite poems. I teach it each year in my high school biology class as a good introduction to the fact of common descent in evolutionary
theory and natural classification. Wolfe in not condemning the theory of evolution nor is he condemning the organized region that he converted to. He is having good fun.

Ed Rascaille said...

Humbert Wolfe was born to Jewish parents, his mother from Italy and his father I believe from Germany. He lived in England where he converted to Christianity. The poem "The Gray Squirrel" (published in 1924) is facetious, not satirical. Wolfe is poking (light-hearted) fun at both Christianity and the theory of evolution. According to (post-Darwin) evolutionary theory, life on Earth only began once. Once life evolved to a ) concerning the fact that, according to evolutionary theory, all members of the same taxonomic "family" were very closely related -- by common descent. Botany classes were teaching that apples were really roses, as were pears, plums, peaches, even strawberries and that is why all these plants were placed in the rose family.

The Rose Family

The rose is a rose,

And was always a rose.

But the theory now goes

That the apple's a rose,

And the pear is, and so's

The plum, I suppose.

The dear only knows

What will next prove a rose.

You, of course, are a rose --

But were always a rose.

Robert Frost (from West-Running Brook: 1928)

Wolfe sees the humor in the theory of evolution and the "fact of common descent" when combined with Christianity (which he had converted to) and, because the squirrel is "our" cousin, includes it in the human moral community. In science, giving animals human characteristics is called "anthropomorphism" and is frowned upon as "bad science," but it the literary world, it is called "personification" and is considered quite acceptable. Let's see, since the squirrel is our cousin, we should consider him to be part of the human moral community, but when he is eating acorns (and nuts) he is eating his other cousins. Shame on Mr. squirrel! He is not all that he should be. But the keeper, as a Christian, is exempt from this restriction because he only has to love his enemies. This is rich humor which is why The Gray Squirrel is one of my favorite poems. I teach it each year in my high school biology class as a good introduction to the fact of common descent in evolutionary theory and natural classification. Wolfe in not condemning the theory of evolution nor is he condemning the organized region that he converted to. He is having good fun.

Ed Rascaille said...

Humbert Wolfe was born to Jewish parents, his mother from Italy and his father I believe from Germany. He lived in England where he converted to Christianity. The poem "The Gray Squirrel" (published in 1924) is facetious, not satirical. Wolfe is poking (light-hearted) fun at both Christianity and the theory of evolution. According to (post-Darwin) evolutionary theory, life on Earth only began once. Once life evolved to a ) concerning the fact that, according to evolutionary theory, all members of the same taxonomic "family" were very closely related -- by common descent. Botany classes were teaching that apples were really roses, as were pears, plums, peaches, even strawberries and that is why all these plants were placed in the rose family.

The Rose Family

The rose is a rose,

And was always a rose.

But the theory now goes

That the apple's a rose,

And the pear is, and so's

The plum, I suppose.

The dear only knows

What will next prove a rose.

You, of course, are a rose --

But were always a rose.

Robert Frost (from West-Running Brook: 1928)

Wolfe sees the humor in the theory of evolution and the "fact of common descent" when combined with Christianity (which he had converted to) and, because the squirrel is "our" cousin, includes it in the human moral community. In science, giving animals human characteristics is called "anthropomorphism" and is frowned upon as "bad science," but it the literary world, it is called "personification" and is considered quite acceptable. Let's see, since the squirrel is our cousin, we should consider him to be part of the human moral community, but when he is eating acorns (and nuts) he is eating his other cousins. Shame on Mr. squirrel! He is not all that he should be. But the keeper, as a Christian, is exempt from this restriction because he only has to love his enemies. This is rich humor, which is why The Gray Squirrel is one of my favorite poems. I teach it each year in my high school biology class as a good introduction to the fact of common descent in evolutionary theory and natural classification. Wolfe in not condemning the theory of evolution nor is he condemning the organized region that he converted to. He is having good fun.

Ed Rascaille said...

Humbert Wolfe was born to Jewish parents, his mother from Italy and his father I believe from Germany. He lived in England where he converted to Christianity. The poem "The Gray Squirrel" (published in 1924) is facetious, not satirical. Wolfe is poking (light-hearted) fun at both Christianity and the theory of evolution. According to (post-Darwin) evolutionary theory, life on Earth only began once. Once life evolved to a ) concerning the fact that, according to evolutionary theory, all members of the same taxonomic "family" were very closely related -- by common descent. Botany classes were teaching that apples were really roses, as were pears, plums, peaches, even strawberries and that is why all these plants were placed in the rose family.

The Rose Family

The rose is a rose,

And was always a rose.

But the theory now goes

That the apple's a rose,

And the pear is, and so's

The plum, I suppose.

The dear only knows

What will next prove a rose.

You, of course, are a rose --

But were always a rose.

Robert Frost (from West-Running Brook: 1928)

Wolfe sees the humor in the theory of evolution and the "fact of common descent" when combined with Christianity (which he had converted to) and, because the squirrel is "our" cousin, includes it in the human moral community. In science, giving animals human characteristics is called "anthropomorphism" and is frowned upon as "bad science," but it the literary world, it is called "personification" and is considered quite acceptable.

Ed Rascaille said...

Humbert Wolfe was born to Jewish parents, his mother from Italy and his father I believe from Germany. He lived in England where he converted to Christianity. The poem "The Gray Squirrel" (published in 1924) is facetious, not satirical. Wolfe is poking (light-hearted) fun at both Christianity and the theory of evolution. According to (post-Darwin) evolutionary theory, life on Earth only began once. Once life evolved to a s), writers began to see the humor in the situation.

Wolfe sees the humor in the theory of evolution and the "fact of common descent" when combined with Christianity (which he had converted to) and, because the squirrel is "our" cousin, includes it in the human moral community.

Torbj?rn Svedberg said...

I remember this poem from my studies in english in Swedish grammar school back in 1973.
I did not too long ago had a dream that started "Like a small grey coffee pot" and I simply could not ( when I woke up ) remember from where and when this was coming from.
So I googled the frase and found this page. Thank You!
Toby Svedberg Stockholm

Ed Rascaille said...

Actually, in his poem "The Grey Squirrel", Humbert Wolfe is not attacking Christianity at all. Wolfe was born to a Jewish family and converted to Christianity before he wrote the poem. If we put this poem in its proper historical perspective, we see that Wolfe is being facetious, not satirical. In the roaring 20s, the "public" was finally ready for what biologists already knew. If Darwinian evolutionary theory is true, then every living thing on earth is related by common descent (i.e., shares common ancestors). Newspapers and popular magazines in the 1920s published stories about this truth and everybody had a good laugh at the implications.

In 1924, Wolfe published this poem in which he poked light-hearted fun at both evolution and his adopted Christianity. His reasoning is as follows. If the squirrel is our "cousin" as evolution implies, then why not include Mr. Squirrel in the human moral community -- where he will be found wanting because he eats acorns and nuts (embryonic trees) which are also his cousins. Shame on Mr. Squirrel! However, if Mr. Squirrel is part of our moral community, well there must be a reason why it is OK for the keeper to kill him. Sure enough, the Bible provides the answer. We only need to love our enemies.

Later that same decade, a news story broke about how science had discovered that apples, peaches, plums, pears, strawberries and roses, based on a common flower anatomy, were actually so very closely related that they belonged in the same family, the rose family. In 1928, Robert Frost penned his poem "The Rose Family" which goes,

The rose is a rose,

And was always a rose.

But the theory now goes

That the apple's a rose,

And the pear is, and so's

The plum, I suppose.

So we see that Wolfe was not the only poet that was musing over the fact of common descent according to Darwinian evolution back in the roaring 20s.

jtaber said...

Actually, in his poem “The Grey Squirrel”, Humbert Wolfe is not attacking
Christianity at all. Wolfe was born to a Jewish family and converted to
Christianity before he wrote the poem. If we put this poem in its proper
historical perspective, we see that Wolfe is being facetious, not
satirical. In the roaring 20s, the “public” was finally ready for what
biologists already knew. If Darwinian evolutionary theory is true, then
every living thing on earth is related by common descent (i.e., shares
common ancestors). Newspapers and popular magazines in the 1920s
published stories about this truth and everybody had a good laugh at the
implications.

In 1924, Wolfe published this poem in which he poked light-hearted fun at
both evolution and his adopted Christianity. His reasoning is as follows.
If the squirrel is our “cousin” as evolution implies, then why not
include Mr. Squirrel in the human moral community -- where he will be
found wanting because he eats acorns and nuts (embryonic trees) which are
also his cousins. Shame on Mr. Squirrel! However, if Mr. Squirrel is
part of our moral community, well there must be a reason why it is OK for
the keeper to kill him. Sure enough, the Bible provides the answer. We
only need to love our enemies.

Later that same decade, a news story broke about how science had
discovered that apples, peaches, plums, pears, strawberries and roses,
based on a common flower anatomy, were actually so very closely related
that they belonged in the same family, the rose family. In 1928, Robert
Frost penned his poem “The Rose Family” which goes,

The rose is a rose,
And was always a rose.
But the theory now goes
That the apple’s a rose,
And the pear is, and so’s
The plum, I suppose.

So we see that Wolfe was not the only poet that was musing over the fact
of common descent according to Darwinian evolution back in the roaring
20s.

William Braun said...

Ah yes. I can't tell you how many times I have felt moved to recite that poem in situations where I felt it might do some good. I am continually astounded by the blank faces which greet my efforts.
They just don't get it.

Bill Braun Rabbit Lake Saskatchewan.

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Anonymous said...

This is a nifty little piece of of poetry, but I would not read too much message into it. And masterpiece is praise rather too high.

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