We all make mistakes. This can include killing baby rabbits. For those attuned to this sad sort of thing, there is a macabre sub-genre of contemporary poetry about mistakenly killing small creatures with power mowers.
Philip Larkin famously killed a hedgehog while cutting the grass (“The Mower”), and Richard Wilbur clipped off the leg of an unlucky toad (“The Death of a Toad”). In Robert Frost’s poem “The Exposed Nest,” a father and daughter contemplate a cluster of baby birds who narrowly escaped—who knows how—the cutting blade of a mower that was pulled over their hidden nest in a field. In a less-well-known poem by James Wright called “Small Frogs Killed on the Highway,” the speaker observes how speeding cars obliterate the frogs as they try to reach “the green stalk of the field / On the other side of the road.”
Some poems are variations on this theme. Richard Eberhardt, for instance, in “The Groundhog,” considers the decaying body of a groundhog in a field. Granted he didn't kill it himself, but he ruminates existentially over the bloated corpse. Then we have William Stafford’s anthology piece, “Travelling Through the Dark.” A driver comes upon the body of a deer hit by a car. It’s by the side of the road at a tricky turn above a canyon. The speaker of the poem stops his own car, gets out, and sees it was a pregnant doe. Realizing the danger to other drivers, he roles the warm, gravid body down a ravine into the river below.
We mustn’t forget “Snake,” by D. H. Lawrence. The violence here is no accident, though the speaker in this case doesn’t kill the snake. He hurls a log at it, sending it panic-stricken into its dark hole. To his credit, the speaker immediately regrets what he did and realizes that he missed his “chance with one of the lords of life.”
Why do we write these poems? It’s a symptom, I think, of modernity and our guilt over pulling ever further away in our mechanized lives from the natural world. I’m riveted by these poems, particularly Larkin’s and Wilbur’s, because I had the misfortune in my early twenties of mistakenly going over a baby rabbit with a massive power mower in a horse pasture. I still think about it, and it fills me with dread. The worst thing was, when I found the rabbit, it wasn’t dead yet. I’ve written a poem about this called “Killing Things.” It’s due to come out later this year in American Arts Quarterly, thanks to the poetry editor there, the sculptor and poet Meredith Bergmann. (To respect editorial policy, I won’t include the poem here.)
I’d like to end with a supposition. It seems clear to me that Larkin and Wilbur, with their power mowers, are reaching back to a very ancient image from the Latin poets: the wild flower at the edge of a meadow inadvertently "touched" by the plow. The image comes from Catullus XI (To Furius and Aurelius). I'm grateful to the translator and poet Chris Childers for helping me re-find this passage. In Catullus, the destroyed flower and the plow are not at the center of the poem. They are invoked at the end by a disabused lover to show how he has been hurt by Lesbia, a carless paramour with industrial-grade appetites. Here is Chris Childers’ excellent take:
her call me a lover or a friend;
it's her fault that my love is fallen now
like a shy flower touched at the meadow’s end
by a passing plow.
If we disregard the context and rhetoric of this poem (Chris warned me to be careful here) and look only at the image in the last two lines, it’s not too different from Larkin and Wilbur. As Chris rightly pointed out to me, Catullus XI is a love poem, whereas those by Larkin and Wilbur are mortality poems, and Larkin’s mower is more Horatian. Still, in each case, a fragile, living thing, be it a wildflower (Catullus), a hedgehog (Larkin), or a toad (Wilbur), is killed with a tool by mistake and rather thoughtlessly. My claim is that Larkin and Wilbur, with their power mowers, are pointing back to the ancient plow. Of course, the image of things getting cut down by a gardener with a scythe is a commonplace emblem of Death at work, but in that case, there is intent to destroy. Not so, here. These three deaths are caused unintentionally, which makes the perishing more poignant. Did Larkin and Wilbur have Catullus in mind? I would like to think so, but it requires a better scholar than I to answer this.