"Badger" is written in heroic couplets, its sixty-eight lines divided into five sonnet-length stanzas. Since the copy-text of "Badger" is untitled, some editors have chosen to call it "Badger" and others "[The Badger]"; it has been anthologized in both five- and threestanza versions. The following description of the poem refers to the five-stanza "Badger."
The first stanza of the poem gives the reader a general sense of the badger’s appearance and activities. An awkward and unattractive animal, the badger does not live in harmony with humans and domestic animals: "The shepherds dog will run him to his den/ Followed and hooted by the dogs and men." When the woodman goes hunting for foxes, he does not see the badger’s many holes and often tumbles into them.
In the second stanza, the men and their dogs trap the badger and bring him to town to be baited. The noise of the hunt frightens an old fox and a poacher, who misfires, wounding a hare. Although the badger is reputed to be an aggressive animal, much of the violence in the poem seems to come from men, who take a sadistic delight in tormenting the beast.
The badger fights heroically in the third stanza, turning on the crowds and the packs of dogs, beating them all, even the "heavy mastiff savage in the fray" and the bulldog. Despite being relatively diminutive in size, the badger fights for hours against impossible odds, and John Clare describes the beast as grinning throughout the battle. In contrast, the only human mentioned in this stanza is a drunkard who "swears and reels.
The contrast between the valiant badger and the ignoble townspeople is further developed in the fourth stanza, where the badger is finally "kicked and torn and beaten out." His attackers are larger and more numerous; they use sticks and clubs and kick the badger when he is down. The badger plays dead and then, grinning, chases the crowd away, but at last he "leaves his hold and crackles groans and dies." The poem emphasizes the badger’s courage and the cowardly bullying of the village mob—although the badger dies, one might say that he wins a moral victory.
Some versions of the poem end with the fourth stanza, which certainly provides the poem with a climax, but Clare wrote a final, concluding stanza, describing a tame badger. This section of the poem presents the badger in another light—rather than a wild animal struggling for survival, the domesticated badger fights dogs when so commanded by his master, but it also "licks the patting hand and trys to play." The last lines of the poem describe the tame badger’s essential timidity, as he "runs away from noise in hollow trees[s]/ Burnt by the boys to get a swarm of bees." Given the chance, the badgers seems capable of living with people in an affectionate and harmonious manner.