The Caterpillar

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.
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.
Publication Start Year: 
RPO poem Editors: 
Ian Lancashire
RPO Edition: 
RPO 1997.