The Chace: ‘Sport of Kings’

It’s Autumn, so most of the UK’s hunting seasons are now underway. It seems like a good time to read the great hunting georgic, The Chace (1735) by William Somervile (or Somerville).

William-Somervile
William Somerville, by Unknown artist, oil on canvas, circa 1695-1710. National Portrait Gallery, London

I feel like I have a few things in common with Somervile. As well as being distant cousins, we both grew up in the West Midlands, and we both love horses and dogs. But whereas I’m a vegetarian and consider myself a general supporter of animal rights, he wrote a 2,000-line poem celebrating the beauty, the thrill, and even the moral virtue of hunting.

He disliked coursing (chasing hares with greyhounds instead of beagles), but apart from that Somervile was pretty much up for any kind of hunting. Book I of The Chace gives a sweeping history of hunting, from Nimrod to the Normans, and then concentrates on the good keeping of hounds. Book II describes hare-hunting, then concludes with a fanciful foray into India to imagine the big game hunts of the Mughal Emperor’s court. In Book III Somervile returns to England and the fox-hunt, and after daydreaming a bit again about Africa and Arabia, turns to the stag hunt at the royal Windsor court. Book IV is about breeding and training hounds, the dangers of rabies, and finally otter-hunting.

A Fox Hunt, by John Wootton, oil on canvas, circa 1735. Yale Center for British Art

Somervile doesn’t seem too troubled by ethical objections to hunting, even though he would have read arguments against it in one of his major georgic sources, Thomson’s The Seasons. For Somervile, hunting is a gift from God, and God has favoured Britain in particular:

HAIL happy Britain! highly favour’d Isle,
And Heav’n’s peculiar Care! To thee ’tis giv’n
To train the sprightly Steed

In thee alone, fair Land of Liberty!
Is bred the perfect Hound[.]
(I.84-94)

But Somervile certainly doesn’t shy away from the darker side of the hunt. He depicts scenes from the perspective of the prey as often as of the hunter, and emphasises the animals’ fear and torment.

How quick she [the hare] turns! their gaping Jaws eludes,
And yet a Moment lives; ’till round inclos’d
By all the greedy Pack, with infant Screams
She yields her Breath, and there reluctant dies.
(II.269-72)

As Tobias Menely has pointed out, sometimes Somervile even seems deliberately to stir the reader’s pity for the hunted animals. He uses the georgic trope of the sentimental animal death, even when it sits so awkwardly with his pro-hunting argument. Here’s the stag fleeing the king’s hunt:

Press’d by the fresh Relay, no Pause allow’d,
Breathless, and faint, he faulters in his Pace,
And lifts his weary Limbs with Pain, that scarce
Sustain their Load: he pants, he sobs appall’d;
Drops down his heavy Head to Earth, beneath
His cumb’rous Beams oppress’d.
(III.506-11)

Despite its confused ethical rhetoric, The Chace has great value as a poem of natural description and as a vibrant piece of sports writing. I think it contains some of the best, most sensitively observed and endearing lines on dogs in any poem:

See there with Count’nance blith,
And with a courtly grin, the fawning Hound
Salutes thee cow’ring, his wide op’ning Nose
Upward he curls, and his large Sloe-black Eyes
Melt in soft Blandishments, and humble Joy[.]
(I.238-42)

Learning About the Hounds, by Thomas Butler, oil on canvas, circa 1750. Yale Center for British Art

And Somervile’s descriptions of the thrill of galloping along with the hunt must resonate with anyone who’s had a similar experience:

Now, my brave Youths,
Now give a Loose to the clean gen’rous Steed;
… The craggy Steep,
Where the poor dizzy Shepherd crawls with Care,
And clings to ev’ry Twig, gives us no Pain;
But down we sweep, as stoops the Falcon bold
To pounce his Prey. Then up th’ opponent Hill,
By the swift Motion flung, we mount aloft
So Ships in Winter-Seas now sliding sink
Adown the steepy Wave, then toss’d on high
Ride on the Billows, and defy the Storm.
(III.83-99)

Foxhunting in Hilly Country
Foxhunting in Hilly Country, by George Morland, oil on canvas, 1792. Yale Center for British Art

Somervile’s lines on the fox-hunt are some of the most spirited and effective examples of ‘writing to the moment’ in eighteenth-century poetry. In lines like these you can see the combination of adrenaline-fuelled excitement and technical precision that characterises great hunting literature, like Gay’s Rural Sports, Trollope’s Hunting Sketches, and Sassoon’s Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man.

For these reasons I’d suggest that Samuel Johnson was probably prejudiced against Somervile’s dissipated lifestyle when he wrote that ‘Somerville has tried many modes of poetry; and though perhaps he has not in any reached such excellence as to raise much envy, it may commonly be said at least, that “he writes very well for a gentleman.”’ Ouch.

The Chace is a georgic of leisure, not labour, and Somervile doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a gentleman. Hunting is ‘for the Weak too strong, / Too costly for the Poor’ (Somervile himself struggled to afford to keep his extensive stables and kennels). The poem is told in retrospect, as the elderly poet recalls his youthful hunting days ‘in Fancy’s Mirrour’, and recounts his ‘Triumphs past’ ‘oer the full Bowl [of punch]’. As for the lowlier aspects of keeping hounds and horses – such as treating diseases that are less sublime than rabies – he leaves those to the hunt staff: ‘Of lesser Ills the Muse declines to sing, / Nor stoops so low; of these each Groom can tell / The proper Remedy’.

Due to its theme, the humans in this poem are far more complacent and comfortable than in most georgics. The only lives and livelihoods at stake here are those of the animals involved: the rabid dog, the overworked horse ridden to its death, and of course the hunted quarry. Like all georgics The Chace is about humanity’s relationship with the natural world, and though it seems the most leisured and optimistic, out of all the neoclassical georgics it gives the darkest depiction of that relationship. This is a poem not about Man’s struggle when faced with nature’s harshness, but about nature’s struggle when faced with Man’s cruelty.

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