Poetry, entomology go antenna in antenna

Recently, one my students obviously confused two different parasites in an answer on a test. The student jokingly claimed “poetic license.” That made me think about the poetry of science.

It was a brief thought because it is a brief subject. But it turns out that poets have often been fond of scientific metaphors, or at least insect analogies.

For example, Thomas Hood, a British poet from the early 1800s, used an insect to create a sense of the supernatural in his poem “The Haunted House.”

He wrote, “And on a wall, as chilly as a tomb, the death’s-head moth was clinging.” However, these moths are simple, nocturnal creatures that mostly feed on nectar, although they can invade beehives and feed unmolested because they can mimic the smell of the bees.

Insects also are used to make philosophical statements. Although not exactly poetic, Solomon admonished us to, “Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise.”

I think this means that lazy people should work harder. But considering how dumb ants are, maybe it means don’t be stupid and work so hard. With poet types, it’s hard to know what they mean sometimes.

For example, Anton Chekhov, the Russian playwright and short story master once said: “In nature a repulsive caterpillar turns into a lovely butterfly. But with humans it is the other way around: A lovely butterfly turns into a repulsive caterpillar.”

I’m not sure what he means by that, or what evidence he might have been considering as to whether or not that is true.

Poets are assumed to be wise and their words loaded with meaning.

However, I’ve noticed that they frequently make mistakes when they write about insects. It is perhaps the most disheartening to discover that the Bard himself, William Shakespeare, for whom I have a lifelong appreciation, made entomological errors. In “Henry V” he says of bees, “They have a King, and officers of sort.”

And then he compounded his error in the line, “To the tent-royal of their emperor: who, busied, in his majesty, surveys the singing masons building roofs of gold.” In this case the head man is a queen, and the masons are all women.

Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote: “Thou art a female, Katydid! I know it by the trill that quivers through thy piercing note so petulant and shrill.”

Unfortunately, only the male Katydid sings.

On the other hand, sometimes the poets get it right, first. Sir Ronald Ross discovered that the mosquito was the vector for malaria in 1902. For this he won the Nobel Prize and became quite famous.

However, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow alluded to this relationship between the mosquito and malaria in his epic poem, “Hiawatha,” published in 1855.

In this poem, Nokomis urges Hiawatha to “Slay this merciless magician, save the people from the fever that he breathes across the fen-lands and avenge my father’s murder!”

The “merciless magician” was the mosquito, of course, and this association with fevers predates Ross by 30 years.

Unfortunately, in 1855 mankind had not yet figured out that only the female mosquitoes take a blood meal, so even he had the gender wrong.

Not all poets treat insects with such heavy subject matter. Ogden Nash usually could be counted on to see the lighter side, and he did so with this little rhyme: “Some primal termite knocked on wood; and tasted it, and found it good. That is why your Cousin May fell through the parlor floor today.”

But I especially like what Hans Christian Anderson had to say about insects. “Just living is not enough,” said the butterfly. “One must have sunshine, freedom and a little flower.”

It must be nice to be a poet and be able to capture profound thoughts in beautiful language. And if I have anything in this column wrong, I am just claiming poetic license.

Gary McCallister is professor of biology at Mesa State College and chief executive officer of Flaming Moth Productions.


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