It has been calculated the each copy of the Gutenberg Bible...required the skins of 300 sheep.
-from an article on printing
I can see them squeezed into the holding pen
behind the stone building
where the printing press is housed,
all of them squirming around
to find a little room
and looking so much alike
it would be nearly impossible
to count them,
and there is no telling
which one will carry the news
that the Lord is a shepherd,
one of the few things they already know.
For some reason, I find this poem particularly striking, mostly for the dark humor of the ending sentiment. To a sheep, the shepherd must seem a lordly figure, guiding them through their entire lives. It's rather funny, though in a somewhat dark way, when you consider the outcome for the sheep.
That's not to say that I pity the sheep. They are sheep, their meat was probably well used, and their skins formed the vellum used to print one of the most important books of all time. I don't think Collins takes away from the extraordinary achievement that is the Gutenberg Bible with this poem. It would certainly be somewhat inappropriate for him to do so, as his livelihood is made in the printing of his works. From the poem's very inception, we are reminded of the importance of printing, as Collins cites an article he read (presumably in print, about the history of print). No, I do not think Collins intends us to feel for the sheep in the poem. Rather, I think he wants to call our attention to the importance that they played in the printing. He's emphasizing here, as he does in many of his poems, the unimportant aspects of daily life that are often overlooked. In printing, we rarely think of the process, just the outcome. Collins puts a unique twist on something we now regard as mundane, if we regard it at all. Obviously, the process has changed over the years, but a little history now and then is always a good thing.
Do you agree that Collins did not mean us to pity the sheep? Do you feel for those sheep whose hides were transformed into the medium for printing? Let me know.