Lions and Zebras, Oh My
What a lion would think
If a zebra presented her rump,
Invited the lion to dine
And asked in return
That the zebra’s foal
Be allowed to nurse
Upon the lioness.
This poem seems to be more obscure than I had supposed it to be. I sent a copy to Dr. Nathan Childers and asked him for comments. This is his reply:
Elfrieda Eppingham von Basingstoke,
The symbolism of this poem seems straightforward. The third line, “If the zebra presented her rump” is a clear sexual invitation, the invitation to dine being the obvious euphemism. Lions are predators on zebras; as such they are symbols of the predatory upper class with the zebras being the preyed upon lower class. The lower class female is portrayed as offering her body to the upper class male in exchange for favored treatment for her child (children). Even in the upper classes women are exploited by men and are relegated to the care of children; “be allowed to nurse upon the lioness” can be taken as “raise my children as your own”. The implication here is that the children would be the bastards that he gets on her. This type of “bargain” is typical of the degrading shifts that women are driven to in a sexist, classist society in which they must sell themselves to provide for their children. The first two lines express the uncertainty associated with such bargains. The “zebra” does not know how the “lion” will react to her proposition or whether he will honor the bargain. The poem is indirect; the poet could have made the point more explictly. Concealing the scenario under a layer of symbolism, however, allows the poet to evade rejection by sexist readers. It is an interesting poem; I look forward to reading more of her work in the future.
Father William “Bull” Morris,
The wild metaphor in this poem may have a private meaning for the poet but the almost bibilical character of the parable suggests a religious interpretation. The Lion is the traditional symbol of royalty and, by extension, of Jesus Christ; the Lioness we may take as a reference to Mary. The poem suggests that the zebra, i.e., a human woman, is seeking the blessing of Mary upon her children. In return for this she is offering what? It is clear that sex and food (the surface interpretations) are symbols for something else. The symbolism is that of a worldly offering, i.e., she is a good (but not saved) woman who offers to adopt the forms of religion out of love for her children. The poet asks himself what Jesus thinks of such offers and quite properly says that he does not know.
It’s hard to make sense of this poem because the zoology is all screwed up; lionesses do the hunting and zebras don’t nurse on lionesses. Zebras don’t makes passes at lions and they try not to be eaten. Maybe the poet is trying to say that he doesn’t understand what’s going on because nothing makes sense.
Nathan Childers requested comments on a poem, purportedly by one Richard Harter. I do not for a moment believe that there is such a person as Richard Harter – he is that stock character, the critic as buffoon, who is frequently found in Childers’ satirical essays. The poem, therefore, is from Childers and is one of his little puzzles in which interpretations lay under interpretations endlessly.
The poem appears to be a metaphor for an absurd bargain with three parties – the lion who is being offered a bounty, the zebra who is making the offer, and the lioness who is to make payment. The absurdity has several parts, the principal one being that the lion does not speak for the lioness and cannot commit her to the bargain. There is a reversal of roles; in reality the lioness hunts the zebra which the lion eats. The zebra, who ordinarily tries to avoid being eaten, is offering to be eaten, indeed enticing the lion. The whole thing sounds like a scam.
The poem, then, can be read as the voice of the poem puzzling over a scam. The speaker, the anonymous I, identifies with the lion. He recasts the story he is being given in terms of lions and zebras and asks himself “What a lion would think” of a similar bargain and confesses failure; he simply doesn’t understand how to react to the “bargain” that he is being offered. I have no idea what scam the author had in mind; consumer credit cards are an obvious possibility.
This page was last updated July 12, 1998.