Dog Days: Poets & Pets

Year

2011

Throughout history, pets have provided comfort, companionship, and inspiration to many poets, both classic and contemporary. In exploring the special relationship between poets and their pets, Poets.org takes a look—through photographs, poetry, and prose—at several contemporary writers and the animals they love, followed by an introduction to some of the pets that have inspired well-known classic poets and their verse.


Farrah Field's cat, George Farrah Field's cat, GeorgeKevin Prufer's cat, Pluto Kevin Prufer's cat, Pluto
Matthea Harvey and her cat, Wednesday Matthea Harvey and her cat, WednesdayAbraham Smith's dog, Rodney Abraham Smith's dog, Rodney
Amy King and Ana Bozicevic; with their dogs, Wolfgang and Walt Whitman Amy King and Ana Božičević with their dogs, Wolfgang and Walt WhitmanDara Wier and her Scottie, Maggie Dara Wier and her Scottie, Maggie

The Muse appears in many different forms, and four-legged seems to be no exception. Throughout history, poets have written about their pets using various poetic modes and styles, from elegies through odes to persona poems.

One of the most well-known poems to feature a pet is eighteenth-century poet Christopher Smart's lengthy Jubilate Agno. Smart suffered from a type of religious mania, and was confined for much of his later life. While in confinement, in the years between 1756-1763, he composed the long free-verse manuscript. The most often anthologized surviving fragment of Jubilate Agno is a section titled "Fragment B" [For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry]. The homage to Smart's cat begins as such:

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God, duly and
   daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the
   East he worships in his way.
For is this done by wreathing his body seven
   times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is
   the blessing of God upon his prayer.
For he rolls upon prank to work it in.
For having done duty and received blessing he
   begins to consider himself.
For this he performs in ten degrees.
For first he looks upon his forepaws to see if they
   are clean.
For secondly he kicks up behind to clear away
   there.
For thirdly he works it upon stretch with the
   forepaws extended.
For fourthly he sharpens his paws by wood.
For fifthly he washes himself.
For sixthly he rolls upon wash.
For seventhly he fleas himself, that he may not
   be interrupted upon the beat.
For eighthly he rubs himself against a post.
For ninthly he looks up for his instructions.
For tenthly he goes in quest of food.

Lord Byron was known throughout his life for keeping an array of animals, including a fox, monkeys, peacocks, an Egyptian crane, and a heron. Yet his best-known pet was his adored dog, Boatswain, a Newfoundland, who died in 1808. When Boatswain was buried at Newstead Abbey, the large headstone bore the following inscription, written by Byron in tribute:

Near this Spot
Are deposited the Remains of one
Who possessed Beauty without Vanity,
Strength without Insolence,
Courage without Ferocity
And all the Virtues of Man without his Vices.
This praise, which would be unmeaning Flattery
If inscribed over human Ashes,
Is but a just tribute to the Memory of
BOATSWAIN, a DOG,
Who was born in Newfoundland May 1803,
And died at Newstead Nov. 18, 1808.

Many poets have honored the animals in their lives by composing poems in their memories. Matthew Arnold's dachshund, Geist, was the subject of Arnold's tender elegiac poem, "Geist's Grave," composed in 1881, in which he writes:

Here, where the grass is smooth and warm,
Between the holly and the beech,
Where oft we watch'd thy couchant form,

Asleep, yet lending half an ear
To travellers on the Portsmouth road;—
There build we thee, O guardian dear,
Mark'd with a stone, thy last abode!

Then some, who through this garden pass,
When we too, like thyself, are clay,
Shall see thy grave upon the grass,
And stop before the stone, and say

"People who lived here long ago
Did by this stone, it seems, intend
To name for future times to know
The dachs-hound, Geist, their little friend."

Elizabeth Barrett Browning's cocker spaniel, Flush, was her close companion, especially during her serious bout with poor health. He is addressed in Barrett Browning's well-known poem, "To Flush, My Dog", in which Barrett Browning paid tribute to her dog's playful nature and constant loyalty. An excerpt from the poem reads:

Loving friend, the gift of one,
Who, her own true faith, hath run,
Through thy lower nature;
Be my benediction said
With my hand upon thy head,
Gentle fellow-creature!

Like a lady's ringlets brown,
Flow thy silken ears adown
Either side demurely,
Of thy silver-suited breast
Shining out from all the rest
Of thy body purely.

Darkly brown thy body is,
Till the sunshine, striking this,
Alchemize its dulness, —
When the sleek curls manifold
Flash all over into gold,
With a burnished fulness.

Underneath my stroking hand,
Startled eyes of hazel bland
Kindling, growing larger, —
Up thou leapest with a spring,
Full of prank and curvetting,
Leaping like a charger.

Leap! thy broad tail waves a light;
Leap! thy slender feet are bright,
Canopied in fringes.
Leap — those tasselled ears of thine
Flicker strangely, fair and fine,
Down their golden inches

Flush played a significant role in Barrett Browning's life even after the poet's death in 1861. In 1933, Virginia Woolf wrote Flush, a semi-fictional biography of the dog, depicting his role in Barrett Browning's famed courtship with Robert Browning.

In 1849, Emily Dickinson received a dog as a gift from her father. She named him Carlo, reportedly after a dog in one of her favorite novels, Jane Eyre. Carlo was Emily's confidante and walking companion, and his presence appears in several of her poems, including the following:

I started Early -- Took my Dog --
And visited the Sea --
The Mermaids in the Basement
Came out to look at me --

And Frigates -- in the Upper Floor
Extended Hempen Hands --
Presuming Me to be a Mouse --
Aground -- upon the Sands --

But no Man moved Me -- till the Tide
Went past my simple Shoe --
And past my Apron -- and my Belt --
And past my Bodice -- too --

And made as He would eat me up --
As wholly as a Dew
Upon a Dandelion's Sleeve --
And then -- I started -- too --

And He -- He followed -- close behind --
I felt his Silver Heel
Upon my Ankle -- Then my Shoes
Would overflow with Pearl --

Until We met the Solid Town --
No One He seemed to know --
And bowing -- with a Mighty look --
At me -- The Sea withdrew --

Pets continue to be a source of inspiration. Whether they are the subjects of dedicated verse, or companions through long hours of composition and revision, pets occupy a prominent place both in the history and the heart of modern poetry.