The Megatherium


Joseph Victor von Scheffel

Recited by Alanna Grace Self (@Smolichthys on Twitter).

What hangs there like a frozen pig,
Or knot all twisted rude?
So giant lazy, giant big,
In the prim–rim–aeval wood?
Thrice bigger than a bull–at least
Thrice heavier, and dumb–
A climbing and a clawing beast,
The Megatherium!
All dreamily it opes its jaws
And glares so lazily,
Then digs with might its cutting claws
In the Embahuba tree.
It eats the fruit, it eats the leaf,
Soft, happy, grunting ‘Ai!’
And when they’re gone, as if with grief,
Occasionally goes ‘Wai!’
But from the tree it never crawls.
It knows a shorter way;
For like a gourd adown it falls,
And will not hence away.
With owly eyes awhile it hums,
Smiles wondrously and deep;
For after good long feeding comes
Its main hard work–to sleep.
Oh, sceptic mortal–brassy, bold,
Wilt though my words deride?
Go to Madrid and there behold
His bones all petrified.
And if thou hast before them stood,
Remember these my rhymes,
Such laziness held only good
In ant’diluvian times.
Thou art no Megatherium,
Thy soul has aims divine,
Then mind your studies, all and some,
And eat not like a swine.
Use well your time–’tis money worth,
Yes, work till death you see.
And should you yield to sloth and mirth,
Do it not sloath–somely!

Joseph Victor von Scheffel - 1868. Translated from German by Charles G. Leland

In the bottom right corner, in black and white, is a cartoon of a little man writing a poem by candlelight. The rest of the illustration is a watercolour of his daydream, marked by little thought bubbles coming from the man's head. The daydream shows colourful landscape, with reddish brown geology, a volcano in the background, and clear, blue, skies. In the front and centre is a giant ground sloth standing as tall as a banana tree, using his long tongue to get a branch. Also visible are some Pleistocene deer, a sleepy capybara, and a horned gopher peeking from its den.
Guest art by Zélie (Portfolio website:

I found this poem in the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP) news bulletin from 1953. It was originally published in “Gaudeamus, Lieder aus dem Engeren und Weiteren” by Joseph Victor von Scheffel in 1868, and translated by Charles G. Leland in Boston in 1872.

The natural history of this poem

Joseph von Scheffel’s subject for his poem is Megatherium (“great beast” in Greek), a very large extinct sloth from South America that lived from 5 million to 12 000 years ago. It was one of the largest land animals of its time, reaching nearly 6 metres long and 4 metric tonnes, about the same size as a modern elephant. Megatherium was a ground sloth, so called because it lived on the ground, where modern sloths all live exclusively in trees. Ground sloths lived quite differently from any modern animal, using their powerful, clawed arms to grasp and pull trees and other high up vegetation down to their mouth. Megatherium also moved strangely, walking on the sides of its feet to avoid having its claws stick in the ground, and could stand on its hind limbs by using its tail like a tripod. Recent studies also suggest that, unlike modern sloths, Megatherium and other giant ground sloths may have been hairless like elephants, useful for regulating temperature in their massive bodies. Throughout the poem, Joseph chastises Megatherium for being unintelligent and lazy, that it went extinct because of those traits, and that the reader should avoid the same lifestyle. However, ground sloths existed for quite a long time, from 35 million years ago until around 1500 BCE, going extinct possibly due to overhunting by humans and/or climate change. As well, throughout the Cenozoic, several other mammal groups, such as the horse relatives called chalicotheres, convergently evolved similar adaptations to ground sloths. This tells us the giant sloth lifestyle was and likely still could be quite advantageous in many environments

Charles Godfrey Leland

A black and white photograph of a dour victorian white man with a massive beard and a jaunty hat, that is somewhere between a cowboy hat and a fedora. His impressive eyebrows seem to be an inch thick. Beneath the image is the signature of Charles G. Leland, in beautiful, elegant script.
An image of Charles G. Leland from his memoirs, via Project Gutenberg.

The original author of this poem, Joseph Victor von Scheffel, was already featured in our blog post “The Joy and Sorrow of the Olden Times,” so we decided to feature the translator Charles G. Leland instead.

Charles G. Leland was an American journalist, writer, and professional personality. By that I mean that everything he wrote has a tone of self-importance and he can’t seem to go a paragraph without name-dropping a famous contemporary.

He was born in Philadelphia in 1824 to a wealthy and educated family. His mother, Charlotte Godfrey, was a protegee of the first professional woman writer in the United States, Hannah Adams. Charles was interested in the occult, which apparently began when he was found missing from his crib as a baby; his nurse had taken him secretly to the attic to ensure that he would “become deep in darksome lore, an adept in occulta, and a scholar.” Charles’ texts, especially Aradia, or the Gospel of the Witches, have become the basis for many neopagan beliefs, including Wicca. Aradia focused on the pagan rituals of a group of Tuscany witches, and is a composite of translated texts, spells, and his own research. Charles dedicated much of his career to ethnographic and occult research. He wrote a great deal about Irish travellers, the Algonquin people, Hatian Vodou practitioners, and the aforementioned Tuscany witches. Many of his findings were fabricated, misinterpreted, or just wrong. His texts on pagan beliefs were extremely appropriative, and he claimed to have “discovered the fifth Celtic tongue,” which was actually Cant, used by Irish Travellers.

Charles held anti-slavery beliefs. During his time he was called an “Abolitionist,” which his own father used to insult him. He decided to coin the term “emancipation” as an alternative to “abolition,” so the word would not be so politically loaded. His anti-slavery beliefs did not, however, prevent him from being friendly with White slavers, whom he believed to be kinder and more ethical than Black people involved in the Slave Trade.

Charles’ personal beliefs and biases influenced what he chose to research and translate, and undoubtedly affected the translations themselves. Why did Charles choose The Megatherium, which is clearly intended as a moral lesson? Who did he want to read it? When reading any text, including translated poems, it is important to consider what the author’s intentions might have been.