Animal Poetry. "The Bat is dun, with wrinkled Wings" and "Man and Bat" in connection with Thomas Nagel’s essay "What is it like to be a bat?"

Term Paper 2013 14 Pages

Didactics - English - Literature, Works


In my paper, Thomas Nagel’s essay What is it like to be a bat? will be discussed in connection with Emily Dickinson’s poem The bat is dun, with wrinkled wings and D. H. Lawrence’s poem Man and Bat. Furthermore, I want to prove in how far Nagel’s basic ideas can be found in these two different poems.

Thomas Nagel’s basic idea is that there are some experiences that cannot be fully explained, thathuman experience can only be subjective and that scientists, though they try to analyse things, cannot explain everything. In his essay What is it like to be a bat? he gives the example of persons who are blind from birth. Therefore, they will never experience,e.g. the colours of flowers because they have never seen them. As well as we do not know the experiences of a blind person,wewill never be able to understand a bat, even if we know how their sonar system works.

Emily Dickinson(1830 –1886), an American poet born in Amherst, Massachusetts, wrote the poem The bat is dun, with wrinkled wings.[1]

Some decades later, D. H. Lawrence (1885 – 1930),a Britishnovelist and poet, born in Eastwood, Nottinghamshire, also wrote animal poetry, besides his well-known novels. His poem Man and Bat is part of his collection of poems called ”Birds, Beasts and Flowers“ which were published in 1923. Man and Bat was written between September 1920 and early 1923 in Florence, Italy, where he spent some time after leaving England.Although in European culturesbats as animals of the nightare connected with disaster, death, vampires, devils and superstitious rites, it is not unusualforauthors to writepoems about bats or other “ugly” creatures. Lawrence wrote e.g. Mosquito and Snake. [2]

Both authors believe that God has created all animals,including the most extravagant, and so have a right to live (E.D.,[3] ll. 13 – 16; D.H.L.,[4] ll. 131 – 134).

Emily Dickinson’s poem The bat is dun, with wrinkled wings consists of only four stanzas with four lines each. But there is no rhyme scheme, perhaps except in the first stanza: a b a b, whichis slant rhyme. She often uses dashes at the end of a line, run-on linesand capitalizations, ”Article –“, ”Lips –“ (E.D., ll. 2, 3), which is typical of her work.There are alliterations like ”An Arc Alike” (E.D., l. 7) and ”Astute Abode” (E.D., l. 10) and similes ”Like fallow Article” (E.D., l. 2) and ”… alike inscrutable Elate Philosopher”(E.D., ll. 7, 8). A regular meter cannot be clearly identified. In some lines there is an iambic tetrameter(E.D., ll. 1, 3, 5), in other lines there are two or three iambic feet discernible (E.D., ll. 2, 6, 8).The last stanza does not quite fit in the pattern of the first three stanzas as the lines consist only of two or three iambic feet. Above all, lines 13 to 14 sound like a hymn to God, ”… praise —
” (E.D., l. 14). Her use of dashes could be interpreted as the impossibility of expressing unexplainable feelings and phenomena.[5]

While Lawrence’s poem is a personal experience with the bat, Dickinson’s poem is a description of a bat, written in the third person. The bat is also a male as it is in Lawrence’s poem (E.D., ll. 3, 5, 13). The description differs very much from Lawrence’s, as the bat is not so “unclean”, ”impure” and ”disgusting” as the bat is in Man and Bat. In the beginning, the characterisation of the bat is unemotional. He has “wrinkled wings” (E.D., l. 1) which are like “an umbrella” (E.D., l. 5). His colour is brownish grey (E.D., l. 1), he cannot sing, although he has wings (E.D., l. 3). On the whole, he is not a very attractive animal. But already in the second stanza his mysterious nature is stressed as ”An Arc alike inscrutable Elate Philosopher” E.D., ll. 7 – 8). A further mystery is which dark and unknown world he comes from (E.D., ll. 9 – 10) and what special powers he has and whether they are good or bad (E.D., ll. 11 –12).

In the last stanza, Dickinson praises the ”creator” who is almighty and who knows the purpose of such a creature. Dickinson seems to be fascinated by the bat and assures usthat a bat is a useful, ”Beneficent” animal with special gifts (E.D., ll.15 – 16).In her poem the bat is a mystical animal, which may have differing qualities like ”quaint” (E.D., l. 5) and “malign” (E.D., l. 11), an animal with “eccentricities” (E.D., l. 16).

In our times it is well known that bats are useful: They eat flies and other vermin.[6] That Dickinson already mentions this fact can be the result of her widespread interests. As one of the first women, she studied at Amherst Academy, where she took classes in English and classical literature, Latin, botany, geology, history, philosophy and arithmetic.[7]

D. H. Lawrence’s poem Man and Bat is differentto Dickinson’s, as it is a very long and personal narration with a first-person narrator, written in freeverse. The poem, which consists of174 lines, has no regular stanzas. The length of lines can vary from one (D.H.L., l. 129) to fourteen (D.H.L., l. 132) words. These one-word lines are mostly direct speech, which is underlined by dashes at the beginning and at the end of a sentence and exclamation marks. Furthermore, he often uses run-on lines and he even separates the words”blast-furnace”(D.H.L., l. 69) and ”hand-kerchief” (D.H.L., l. 74). Very rarely, iambic meters are discernible, e.g. two feet (D.H.L., l. 138) and six feet (D.H.L., l. 141).

This poem is a psychological study of human behaviour and demonstrates the reactions of a human being when confronted with a bat.

The narrator enters his room in Florence and finds there a bat, which flies around in circles. First he thinks it is a bird, but then he realizes that it is a bat and instantly he is overcome with disgust and a feeling of insanity (D.H.L., ll.9, 11). He utters short words like ”why”, “a bird”, “a bat”, “go” (D.H.L., ll.6, 7, 10, 13). These utterances and the repetition of the word “insane” (D.H.L., ll.8, 9) emphasise his excitement. He tries to chase him out.But the bat is not willing to leave, he resists. So there is a kind of battle between a man and a wild disgusting animal. The bat, the narrator’s enemy, is also male (D.H.L., l.26). The narrator’s weapons are his handkerchief and certainly his loud voice with which he tries to chase the bat out (D.H.L., ll.13, 19, 25). The narrator is so full of revulsion that he does not remember that the bat is an animal of the night and therefore is not able to fly into the sunlight. According to Nagel’s essay, the author sees the situation only from his own subjective point of view and not from the bat’s point of view. That is the reason for his not understanding the bat and his pitilessness towards the bat. This pitilessness enables him to watch the bat with almost scientific interest. He describes how the bat is panicking, how full of terror he becomes, how full of ”frenzy“ and ”fear“the bat is (D.H.L., l.35). Besides, the narrator notes the insane movements of the terrified animal, and even seems to have fun terrorising and torturing the bat andhe”ran forward to frighten him forth“ (D.H.L., l.56).

Suddenly there is a change. The narrator realises that the bat is a bat and not a bird which can fly in sunlight, and that he is ”asking too much of his nature” (D.H.L., ll. 67 – 73) and he switches on the electric light to help him fly out (D.H.L., l.78). But it is no solution for the bat. The fight continuous and the bat becomes weak and tired and falls down (D.H.L., ll.93, 94).

Apparently, according to Nagel’s essay, the narrator is aware of the fact that the knowledgeof human beings about bats is limited. On the one hand, the narrator tries to get over his disgust and describes the bat with humanising expressions ”... he squatted and looked at me“ (D.H.L., l. 114). He sees every detail of the bat as clearly as not many humans ever saw a bat at daylight ”With sticking-out, bead-berry eyes, … fine fur!”(D.H.L.,ll. 115–119).On the other hand, he is not able to feel what a bat feels like in such a situation and calls his own situation a ”dilemma“ (D.H.L.,l.122). Killing him is impossible, because the narrator is not God (D.H.L., ll.128 – 131) and as God is the creator of everything in the world, he has no right to kill the bat, although the animal makes him insane as he goes “round and round and round” (D.H.L., ll.14, 27, 39, 87).

After a passage in which the bat’s final movements before he falls down, exhausted, are described, in which the narrator watches the ostensibly suffering animal pitilessly, the narrator thinks of his human soul and his responsibility towards animals, pondering over life and death (D.H.L., ll.152 – 154).

Finally, the narrator saves the bat by picking him up in his jacket and throwing him out of the window.

After all these words of fighting and pitiless watching, the tone of the poem becomes more conciliatory and even a bit humorous in the last lines. The Italian word “pipistrello” (D.H.L., l. 170) sounds friendlier and almost caressing. ”Flying away, the bat becomes”almost a bird” like in the beginning (D.H.L., l.163).The bat is given human feelings and characteristicsby the narrator, as the bat feels victorious and even seems to mock at him: He has – so he feels – won the battlewith the human “But I am greater than he… I escaped him…” (D.H.L., ll.173 – 174).

After a close look at both poems, I would say that Thomas Nagel is right when he argues that alien species like bats or Martians can never be fully understood. Their experiences are so far from our human experience that we will never know how these species feel like. ”Our own experience provides the basic material for our imagination, whose range is therefore limited.”[8] As our vocabulary is also limited we can never explain the experiences of bats and Martians. Neither Dickinson nor Lawrence pretend to know anything about bats. On the one hand Dickinson admits that her knowledge about bats is limited, on the other hand Lawrence tries to describe the bat’s behaviour in human familiar ways, although he does not change his opinion that bats are impure. Whereas Lawrence is just disgusted by the bat’s insanity and impurity, Dickinson’s poem draws a more positive image of bats. The bat is not hated and hunted by humans as the bat in Lawrence’s poem is. But in any case both narrators are aware of the fact that bats are part of God’s creation, should be respected as such.








Nagel, Thomas, "What is it like to be a bat?", The Philosophical Review, 1974, 435-50.

The Bat is dun, with wrinkled Wings — by Emily Dickinson[9]

1. The Bat is dun, with wrinkled Wings —
2. Like fallow Article —
3. And not a song pervade his Lips —
4. Or none perceptible.
5. His small Umbrella quaintly halved
6. Describing in the Air
7. An Arc alike inscrutable
8. Elate Philosopher.
9. Deputed from what Firmament —
10. Of what Astute Abode —
11. Empowered with what Malignity
12. Auspiciously withheld —
13. To his adroit Creator
14. Acribe no less the praise —
15. Beneficent, believe me,
16. His Eccentricities —


[1] "Emily Dickinson."Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia(03.01.2013).

[2] "Birds, Beasts and Flowers."Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia(03.01.2013).

[3] E.D.: Emily Dickinson

[4] D.H.L.: D. H. Lawrence

[5] http://www.english.illinois.edu/maps/poets/a_f/dickinson/dash.htm (03.01.2013).

[6] http://www.fledermauskunde.de(03.01.2013).

[7] "Emily Dickinson."Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia(03.01.2013).

[8] Nagel, Thomas, "What is it like to be a bat?", The Philosophical Review, 1974, 435-50.

[9] http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-bat-is-dun-with-wrinkled-wings/


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Institution / College
University of Frankfurt (Main) – Institut für England- und Amerikastudien
Emily Dickinson D. H. Lawrence Thomas Nagel



Title: Animal Poetry. "The Bat is dun, with wrinkled Wings" and "Man and Bat"  in connection with Thomas Nagel’s essay "What is it like to be a bat?"