Cutting out a Path to Knowledge: a Poet’s Vivisector

The poet John Davidson, who enjoyed a period of literary success in the 1890s but then fell out of fashion, is still sometimes to be found in anthologies. Most usually it’s with his fine poem ‘The Last Journey’ – actually the epilogue to a much longer piece – in which the speaker sets out on a walk toward his death (for Davidson believed in rightly timed suicide, and showed that he did in 1909):

I knew it in my heart my days were done.
I took my staff in hand; I took the road,
And wandered out to seek my last abode.

Or sometimes it’ll be ‘A Runnable Stag’. This is the ballad of a hunt on the North Somerset coast, starting with the hunters and their thrills, but gradually preferring the experience of the animal, who finally takes to the “sheltering ocean”, so that his disappointed pursuers

Beheld him escape on the evening tide,
Far out till he sank in the
Severn Sea.

Incidentally, that phrase ‘runnable stag’, meaning an animal of the right ageDavidson photo and size to make a good hunt out of, belongs with ‘research monkey’, ‘ornamental fish’, ‘heritage cattle’, and a myriad other fictitious species in the un-Linnaean system of classifying animals by their usefulness to ourselves. Davidson’s poem movingly corrects that way of thinking.

A much harder poem of his to enjoy – indeed to read at all, so harrowing is it – has the title The Testament of a Vivisector. It’s about 230 lines long, and was published as a volume of its own in 1901. This is the story of a single ruthless vivisection, told as a dramatic monologue by the practitioner himself. As we’ll see, it’s as much about his world-view as it is about his chosen work, but his work is the foreground of it.

Here is a man gripped by the “zest of inquisition”waiting_for_death (the unpleasant historical associations of that word are deliberate). The victim of his research is a broken-down horse just reaching the cat’s-meat end of his downward spiral of servitude to humans. The vivisector rescues this animal from “a raw-faced knacker”, and upon the horse’s living body he then starts “cutting out / A path to knowledge”, apparently in solitude and on his own premises. The whole thing would have been a completely illegal procedure, of course, even in 1901, but then Davidson exactly wished to picture an antinomian, a rebel against the pressures of conscience or of conventional decencies. In short, this is a man who “reveres / Himself, and with superb [i.e. proud] despite / Maltreats the loving-kindnesses of men.

I suppose that such a man might be called ‘Nietzschean’, and certainly Davidson was impressed by the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, whom he called “the most powerful mind of recent times”.

To dramatize such a man with such an outlook, Davidson thought vivisection an appropriate activity – with very good reason. For although there is histrionic exaggeration here, this man’s attitude is essentially the same one actually boasted of by the pioneers of modern vivisection a few decades before (they mostly learned to be more discreet about it after the outcries of the 1870s and 80s). Thus Davidson’s vivisector, driven as he is by “headstrong passion and austerity”, and “purged”, so he says,

Of vulgar tenderness in diligent
Delighted tormentry of bird and beast,

is echoing the words of the practitioner Claude Bernard, in his standard introduction to experimental physiology:

The physiologist is not a common man (‘vulgar’ is Davidson’s word), he’s a man seized and engrossed by the scientific idea which he pursues; he hears no more the cries of the animals, he sees no more the blood which flows, he sees only his idea and is aware only that these organisms are hiding the secret workings which he wishes to uncover. [from Introduction à l’étude de la médicine expérimentale, Paris, 1865, p.180: for the original French, see the notes below.]

Claude Bernard’s wife and daughters were repelled by this demonic single-mindedness, and apparently deserted him (they became campaigners against vivisection). Just so is it for Davidson’s vivisector:

I live alone: my wife
Forsook me, and my daughters.

Going further into the dark of his profession, this man’s specialism in physiology is one of the most unpleasant and most productive of ingenious cruelty in the vivisector’s catalogue: pain itself.

I study pain – pain only: I broach and tap
The agony of Matter.

The topic, we know, is perennial and boundless, or limited only by the ingenuity of researchers (a paper in the journal Science Advances last month describes how mice respond to the neurotoxic venom of the Australian stinging tree Dendrocnide excelsa). And here, for all his unsavoury hermitism, Davidson’s vivisector knows that he has “compeers”. There are, for instance, “those / Who tortured fourscore solipeds to carve / A scale of feeling on the spinal cord.” This must be a reference to actual research, but I can’t identify it: perhaps, since so many horses or other ‘solipeds’ were available there, it was part of the work being done at the notorious Alfort Veterinary College near Paris.

It’s to such “compeers”, then, that this vivisector feels related, not at all to society as a whole. The trajectory of his work reflects this professional self-commitment. We’re told that when he first practised his craft (“began to hew the living flesh”), his aim was “mitigation of disease”. Others like him were perhaps initially doing it “shrewdly as a livelihood, / Or to delight or help mankind, or make a name”. However,

                 in the end, to know –
Merely to know was the consuming fire
Of these strong minds, delivered and elect.
(a very Nietzschean company)

The vivisector seems then to travel beyond even that stage of merely inquisitive research. In his isolation, or rather his wretched partnership with the suffering horse, his own specialism loses human reference altogether, and becomes for him a model or instance of the way the universe works. The horse comes to stand for all material things, living or inert: “It may be matter in itself is pain”, he speculates, and that

                 systems, constellations, galaxies
That strew the ethereal waste are whirling there
In agony unutterable

He himself, meanwhile, is simply an instrument used by the universe to come to an understanding of itself – “In me accomplishing its useless aim.”

One often hears the phrase ‘what it means to be human’ as the claimed insight from some neuro-scientific investigation, or indeed from all sorts of intellectual and artistic endeavour. In this poem, what it means to be the universe pushes that anthropocentric will-o’-the wisp aside: preoccupied as we may be only with ourselves, we’re in fact steadily working for the equally unfeeling and selfish purpose of the universe,

          the infinite vanity
Of the Universe, being evermore

Such are the last lines of the poem.

The Testament of a Vivisector was published during a period of very active controversy. The newly founded British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection was running a vigorous campaign against the Brown Institution, a place founded and endowed fifty years back as an infirmary for sick animals but transformed by the University of London into what BUAV’s Frances Power Cobbe called “the headquarters of vivisection in England. In that same publication year, 1901, Stephen Coleridge, secretary of the National Anti-Vivisection Society, publicly identified the London hospitals that ran vivisection laboratories (in his pamphlet The Metropolitan Hospitals and Vivisection). A dedicated alternative hospital, ‘the Antiviv’, was about to open in Battersea (as described elsewhere in this blog). These and other protests, projects, and scandals were to culminate in the second Royal Commission on the subject in 1906.

John Davidson warned his readers in a preliminary note to the poem that it would not please either side in this controversy. Certainly the story of the vivisector marking down the weary horse and putting it to pitiless use (without anaesthetics, of course) would be horrible for zoophiles to read. But after all, that was and is the main objection to the practice – that it causes pain to helpless animals. Davidson therefore puts a strong case against it as his very premise and story-line.

The case for it, at least as it is shown practised in the poem, depends upon our accepting the remarkable world-view proposed by the vivisector, that the story of the universe – or of ‘Matter’, as he sometimes calls it, for he doesn’t attribute mind of any sort to it, except via mankind – has been one of gradual and strenuous self-discovery, in which scientific humanity is the final and successful means. As to the pain caused, why should the universe mind? And isn’t he suffering too: “Have I no pain?” he rhetorically appeals. He even wonders, as we’ve seen, whether pain is not the universal condition, constituting indeed the grand discovery now being made through human agency.

If this seems an almost pathological condition of mind, a perilous mixture of self-mortification and human-supremacism, it may be taken as a fair caricature of the state of mind in which vivisection has made its case and found its justification. As I’ve already said, the vivisector fits naturally into it, and dramatizes it for us. It wasn’t, however, a mere fiction for Davidson himself. In his last substantial poem, titled The Testament of John Davidson, he presents the idea again more plainly: “Men are the Universe / Aware at last.” And then he takes it a step further into a terrifying simplicity:

It may be that the Universe attains
Self-knowledge only once; and when I cease
To see and hear, imagine, think and feel,
The end may come, and Matter, satisfied,
Devolve once more . . .
Back to ethereal oblivion

Here the idea emerges in all its megalomania, and the wilful alienation entailed in it leads naturally and tragically on to that last expedition taken by the poet in the epilogue quoted at the start of this post.

Megalomania, alienation, self-destruction: who could say that Davidson doesn’t carry his whole species with him on that ruinous journey? Often one feels that only a complex madness of that kind can explain mankind’s treatment of fellow-creatures and the world-habitat shared with them. I’ve said that Davidson admired the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche (though with some reservations). It’s plainly recognisable in his portrait of the vivisector: the rejection of conventional (or any) morality, the trust in an “elect”, the proud willingness to take and to cause pain, the hubristic over-estimate of the human, the vaunting of solitude. In fact The Testament of a Vivisector may be read as a cautionary fable for that philosophy.

Nietzsche himself suffered, in his middle age, a mental collapse from which he didn’t recover, though he lived for another ten years. Leading up to it there had been a period of increasing megalomania; one biographer calls it “self-infatuation” [541]. But the immediate occasion of his collapse, the so-called ‘incident in Turin’, was the sight of a worn-out horse much like the vivisector’s being beaten and goaded by its master. It seems that Nietzsche intervened and tearfully embraced the animal, before being detached from it and led away by friends.

It may be impertinent, even in some way impious, to look for meanings in something done in a state of derangement. Not indeed that there’s anything obviously deranged about pitying a distressed horse (rather a sign of mental health, one would say); it’s the contrast of that tender-hearted action with Nietzsche’s declared philosophy that makes a puzzle of it – and it has indeed been puzzled over by critics and biographers. In the next post, I hope to say more about it and suggest a meaning to it which will help to make sense also of John Davidson’s poem.

Notes and references:

The poem was originally published by Grant Richards. I don’t know of any more recent edition, but the text is available in the Internet Archive, at

Davidson’s description of Nietzsche comes in his preface to The Testament of John Davidson, Grant Richards, 1908, p.18. The later quotations from that remarkable poem are at pp. 47 and 142.

The original French of Claude Bernard’s remarks is this: “Le physiologiste n’est pas un homme du monde . . . c’est un homme qui est saisi et absorbé par une idée scientifique qu’il poursuit; il n’entend plus les cris des animaux, il ne voit plus le sang qui coule, il ne voit que son idée et n’aperçoit que des organismes qui lui cachent des problèmes qu’il veut découvrir.”

The paper in Science Advances is titled ‘Neurotoxic peptides from the venom of the giant Australian stinging tree’, and was published on 16 September 2020. I don’t mean to imply that therapies against the very painful results of a sting from this source aren’t worth devising; let’s indeed avoid pain, but not by making other animals suffer it for us.

The story of the ‘Antiviv’ is told in this blog here:

The term “self-infatuation” is used about Nietzsche at that time in Curtis Cate’s biography Friedrich Nietzsche, Hutchinson, 2002, p. 546.

John Davidson is shown from a photograph of 1896. The wood-engraving is a detail from Waiting for Death by Thomas Bewick; it was published in 1832.