Ballad of the Ichthyosaurus


May Kendall

Content warning: scientific racism, phrenology.

Recited by Brigid Christison.

[The Ichthyosaurus laments his incomplete development and imperfect education. He aspires to better things]

I ABIDE in a goodly Museum
Frequented by sages profound,
In a kind of strange mausoleum,
Where the beasts that have vanished abound,
There’s a bird of the Ages Triassic
With his antediluvian beak,
And many a reptile Jurassic,
And many a monster antique!

Ere Man was developed, our brother,
We swam, and we ducked, and we dived,
And we dined, as a rule, on each other.
What matter, the toughest survived!
Our paddles were fins, and they bore us
Through water, — in air we could fly;
But the brain of the Ichthyosaurus
Was never a match for his eye!

The geologists, active and eager,
Its excellence hasten to own,
And praise, with no eulogy meagre,
The eye that is plated with bone!
“See how, with unerring precision,
His prey through the waves he could spy;
Oh, wonderful organ of vision,
Gigantic and beautiful eye!”
Then I listen in gloomy dejection,
I gaze, and I wish I could weep,
For what is mere visual perfection
To Intellect, subtle and deep?
A loftier goal is before us,
For higher endowments we sigh,
But — the brain of the Ichthyosaurus
Was never a patch on his eye!

It owned no supreme constitution,
Was shallow, and simple, and plain,
While mark but the fair convolution
And size of the Aryan brain!
‘Tis furnished for School-Board inspections,
And garnished for taking degrees,
And bulging in many directions,
As every phrenologist sees.
Sometimes it explodes at high pressure
In harsh, overwhelming demand,
But, plied in unmerciful measure,
It’s wonderful what it will stand!
In cottage, in college, and mansion
Bear witness the girls and the boys,
How great are its bowers of expansion,
How very peculiar its joys!

O Brain that is bulgy with learning,
O Wisdom of women and men,
O Maids for a First that are yearning,
O Youths that are lectured by WREN!
You’re acquainted with Pisces and Taurus
And all sorts of beasts in the sky,
But the brain of the Ichthyosaurus
Was never so good as his eye!

Reconstructed by DARWIN and OWEN
We dwell in sweet Bloomsbury’s halls,
But we couldn’t have passed Little-go in
The Schools; we’d have floundered in Smalls!
Though so cleverly people restore us
We are bound to confess, with a sigh,
That the brain of the Ichthyosaurus
Was never so good as his eye!

May Kendall - 1885

Quilling (curled strips of paper glued to a page) of an ichthyosaurus skeleton. The bones are done with curled strips for the vertebrae and flat strips for the ribs. Around the fossil are curled grey and blue strips of paper representing bubbles and waves.
Guest art by Dana Korneisel. (Instagram: @KorneiselDana; Twitter: @DanaKorneisel)

This poem was published in the Victorian satirical magazine Ladies who Punch in 1885. Despite the title, it was actually aimed mainly at adult men and was considered to be an extremely misogynistic publication. Most women who made it to Ladies who Punch wrote about domestic or “women’s” topics. It is likely that May Kendall was able to publish on scientific topics because her poems were misattributed to a man.

This poem is racist: both phrenology and the “Aryan brain” are referenced in a casual manner. It is not our goal to hurt anyone by publishing this poem, rather we want to highlight the types of scientific racism that is incorporated into the framework of many modern fields. Phrenology (explained more in the next section) is widely condemned as a pseudoscience, yet it has far-reaching consequences that can still be witness in scientific circles today. We need to continue to learn about scientific racism in the past so we can fight it in the present and future.

May Kendall makes light of these concepts, however they must not be ignored or written off as outdated humour. This type of scientific justification for white supremacy has real-life consequences. Intellectuals used phrenology to argue that white people were naturally superior to Black and Indigenous people, and people of colour. When people believe that racism is scientifically supported, they don’t examine or attempt to correct their own biases, leading to wide-scale institutional racism.

An ink illustration of a Victorian-style Ichthyosaurus. It's standing up straight on its back fins, defying physics. It's slumped forward and its head points up and forward. It has a big wrinkly smile exposing its sharp teeth. It has a big round belly, and it's wearing a feathered graduation cap, standing in front of a globe.
An illustration of an Ichthyosaurus that accompanied May Kendall’s poem in “Ladies Who Punch,” 1885.

The natural history of this poem

Ichthyosaurs were aquatic reptiles that superficially resembled dolphins in overall appearance. The poem describes a time before people when Ichthyosaurus was living in the oceans. Ichthyosaurs are a taxonomic order that lived from the Triasssic Period until the Late Cretaceous Period (approximately 250-90 Ma), and Ichthyosaurus was one of the first members of this group.

The poem mentions that Ichythosaurus “…dined, as a rule, on each other”, suggesting that they were cannibalistic. This was a common thought held by Victorian palaeontologists, as some ichthyosaurs were found with the remains of smaller ichthyosaurs inside of them. As it turns out, these smaller individuals were actually the offspring of the larger ones. Ichthyosaurs would have given birth to live young, as opposed to laying eggs. This is because their bodies were so adapted to swimming that they likely could not come onto land to lay eggs.

The poem then goes into detail about the eyes of Ichthyosaurus, stating that they had “…unerring precision…” and that their eyes were “Gigantic and beautiful…”. This holds up quite well in terms of the modern understanding of ichthyosaurs. They had very large eyes, with some like Ophthmalosaurus having nearly the entire space of their skull filled by their massive eyes. These eyes were likely their primary sense when it came to hunting, allowing them to spot prey easily, even in dimly lit deeper ocean environments.

For the latter verses, Ichthyosaurus laments that he’ll never be very smart, and that his eye will always be his only impressive feature. Intelligence is mistakenly linked to size and shape of a person’s brain throughout this poem. This is a reference to phrenology, a racist pseudoscience popular in Victorian England and other European countries and places they had colonized. Phrenology involved observing the shape of the skull and brain to determine a person’s intelligence. Phrenology was used to justify scientific racism, and the results always supported white supremacist views. When May references the “Aryan brain” as the intellectual ideal, she is upholding this racist practice, and appears to accept it as scientific fact that it was the “ideal” brain.

May Kendall

A digital illustration of a solemn looking white woman, looking to one side. Her hair is cut short and unevenly, she looks to the left side of the frame and wears a high collared buttoned dress. The background is abstract and blue.
May Kendall – by Katrin Emery

May Kendall was a Victorian writer, poet, and satirist with a keen interest in science and social issues. Her early career was spent writing books and poetry focusing on current events, particularly on science and the changing status of women in English culture. Her scientific poems, including Ballad of the Ichthyosaurus and Ode to a Trilobite, demonstrate not only an excellent understanding of the science of the time, but a critical eye for feuds between scientists and a distaste for anyone using scientific theories to back up their own preconceptions. It is ironic, then, that she references phrenology and “the Aryan brain” when discussing Ichthyosaurus. Despite having written a poem criticizing Darwin’s theories that women possessed smaller brains then men and thus could not achieve the same intellectual successes as them, May was uncritical of white supremacy and even seems to have taken it as fact in the poem featured here. May was keenly interested in the plight of the working class, and interviewed labourer’s wives to bring attention to the inadequacy of working class wages. She was critical of philanthropy as a model for social change, and deeply against Social Darwinism (discussed in our article on Charlotte Perkins Gilman). Later in her life, May was ‘renowned for her eccentricity, living for many years at 10 Monkgate in a house overrun with cats.’