More Pleistocene Poetry


The AMNH mount of the Warren Mastodon. From The American Museum Journal.

Glendon's session on Art & Science last weekend inspired me to intensify my search for bits of paleontological art, and I have been fortunate enough to uncover some more verses about a prehistoric beast. Here is Hannah F. Gould's "The Mastodon", published in the prosaically-titled New Poems in 1850;


Thou ponderous truth, from thy long night's sleep
Through the unrecorded eras
Awaked, and come from their darkness deep
To this day of light chimeras! --
What wast thou, when thy mountain form
Stood forth in vital glory ?
O, who can paint thee live and warm,
Or reveal thy life's strange story ?

Those flinty darts * must have brought thee low,
That were found beneath thee lying!
Some mighty hunter had twanged the bow,
Till he saw Behemoth dying !
Thou, till then, that in pride and power
Hadst walked the earth with thunder,
How great the pang, -- the fall, -- the hour, --
When thy life-string snapped asunder !

The ground, that, shuddering, drank thy blood,
In its clods dared not imbed thee ;
And sea and skies gave a whelming flood,
As a pall, to overspread thee.
Age on age, with their stone and mould,
In strata deep, then made thee
A shroud no power could e'er unfold,
Till a day of steam betrayed thee.

They came, -- they found, and they probed thy bed ;
And Resurgam o'er thee writing,--
An ancient of the unnumbered dead
For too long repose indicting ! --
Thee they brought to the sun's broad blaze,
For this rude court to try thee : --
Of high and low must thou stand the gaze;
And the veriest gnat may eye thee!

For rightful claim, which the world now grudge,
To one's own reserved quietus,
Thou com'st arraigned to each self-made judge,
With thine ironed limbs, to meet us.
Yet, hold on ; and thy history still
Let none that pry discover ; --
Not though they cast thee in their great mill,
And they grind and mould thee over!

Sublimely wrapt in a mystery be,
As a problem grand propounded; --
The thousands prove, who may question thee,
In their wisdom all confounded.
Heed not thou what the babblers say, --
Be proudly mute to sages :
They 're creatures all of but yesterday,
And thou of the untold ages !

* Several stone darts are said to have been found under the Mastodon recently discovered and exhibited. 1845.

If I am correct, the stone darts that "brought [Behemoth] low" were found by the German paleontologist Albert Koch in Gasconade County, Missouri. Koch thought he had uncovered the remains of an elephant-like animal that had become mired in a swamp, had been killed by humans wielding stone tools, and was then burned on the spot, thus proving that humans and mammoths had lived alongside one another. (In truth, Koch's beast was probably a giant ground sloth, and since most of the skeleton and tools had been dug up before he arrived it is impossible to tell just how the bones and tools came to be associated with each other. One idea was that the animal had died in a swamp which was later covered up. At some point humans used this area as a campsite, thus explaining the burnt bones and stone tools.)

Koch displayed the stone tools he was able to recover from the site, along with an arrow point he found with his elephantine monster "Missourium", in a traveling show. This is probably where Miss Gould drew some of her inspiration. Koch would not present his case to professional scientists until 1857, however, a time when the claim that humans had coexisted alongside extinct mammals was still controversial. It was not until the excavations of Brixham Cave and the Somme Valley sites by British paleontologists in 1858-1859 that academics felt that they finally had solid proof that humans had lived alongside mastodons and that there was no defining line that marked a distinct "Age of Man."

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I can just imagine how exciting that time must have been. It's just as exciting now--is there any contemporary poetry about scientific discoveries?

Sorry, man. Can't resist.

On the Vanity of Earthly Greatness

by Arthur Guiterman

The tusks that clashed in mighty brawls
of mastodons , are billiard balls.

The sword of Charlemagne the Just
is ferric oxide, known as rust.

The grizzly bear whose potent hug
was feared by all, is now a rug.

Great Caesar's bust is on the shelf,
and I don't feel so well myself.

I recall reading that in the early 19th century, when extinction was still a radical concept, and large areas of the Pacific Northwest were still unexplored, Thomas Jefferson believed these extict elephant relatives might still be roaming wild, and instructed Lewis and Clark to look for them on their expedition. Alas,(and unsurprisingly) no surviving Mastodons were found!

By Raymond Minton (not verified) on 26 Jan 2009 #permalink