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Dogs in Poetry

Guest Author - Jessica Smith

Because dogs inspire such strong, powerful feelings, they are perfect subjects for poetry. As any poet knows, the more one feels about the subject, the better the poem will be. Poetry without heart is spotted quickly and discarded easily. True passion is impossible to fake.

Any search for poetry about dogs yields prolific results. This attests to the strong, irreplaceable feelings we have for our species' best friends. Those who own dogs know how quickly they become an essential part of the family. They are not just animals that are owned, but beings with personalities who are cherished and loved.

Many poems extol the virtue of dogs over that of humans. In his "Epitaph to a Dog" Lord Byron writes:

This Praise, which would be unmeaning Flattery
If inscribed over human Ashes
Is but a just tribute to the memory of
BOATSWAIN, a Dog

Clearly the author holds his beloved pet in virtue high over anyone else. Indeed, the hearts of dog owners, as illustrated by Jonathan Swift's inscription written for the collar of a friend's lapdog, lie within their dogs. In fact, dogs are often praised for their higher qualities- loyalty, bravery, forgiveness, etc., and are often used as representatives of such. The beginning of the epitaph for Byron's dog illustrates this nicely, describing him as

...one who possessed Beauty without Vanity,
Strength without Insolence
Courage without Ferocity
and all the virtues of Man without his Vices.

The strength of Byron's attachment to his canine companion cannot be denied. Even those who do not consider themselves dog enthusiasts must admit that the characteristics portrayed by these creatures (both in reality, or represented in fiction) make them intriguing personifications of the very best characteristics for which humans strive.

While many poems extol dogs above humans, just as many use dogs as a study in behavior, to reveal touching truths about (human) nature. The poem "Two Dogs Have I" by Ogden Nash illustrates the relationship between his smaller, elderly dog and the larger, younger puppy. It follows Nash's typical style of rhythm, rhyme and repetition, tripping off the tongue almost like a jig or song. The poem humorously displays the little dog's irritation with and hatred of the big dog as she "grumbles broken curses" and "calls him Pig-dog." Nash's personification is perfect, easily bringing to mind the image of a grumpy, elderly creature in her mannerisms. To balance this, the big dog actually loves the little dog, despite the obviousness of her feelings towards him, and "clings to the little dog / like glue and cement and mortar." To remain fair, Nash justifies the little dog's feelings toward the big dog by explaining how she
...was once the household darling...
He romps like young Adonis
She droops like an old mustache.

Though the subjects are dogs, Nash presents them in human terms, which not only shows his deep feelings for both of them, but allows the reader (who knows neither) to understand and feel close to them as well. The reader, also, can choose whether to think of the poem on dog terms (the dogs' actions, how they have their own personalities and emotions) or on human terms (the dogs as a metaphor for human behavior).

In the final verse, the speaker stumbles across the two dogs in the early morning, discovering them asleep together:

And the little dog slept by the big dog
And her head was on his flank.

Few could manage to remain unmoved at such a reconciliation- a glimpse into a private, unguarded moment revealing love deeper than annoyance and hatred. Nash presents this beautiful moment to us through the medium of his two dogs- representatives of the highest virtues, and as human as ourselves.
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Epitaph to a Dog by Lord Byron
Two Dogs Have I by Ogden Nash
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Content copyright © 2014 by Jessica Smith. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Jessica Smith. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Karena Andrusyshyn for details.

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