The best dog poems selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
Previously, we’ve compiled ten of the best poems about cats, so we thought it was time to complement that with a similar post about the best poems about dogs. We hope you enjoy these favourite classic dog poems – but have we missed off any favourites?
Alexander Pope, ‘I am his Highness’ dog at Kew’. Alexander Pope (1688-1744) was known as ‘the Wasp of Twickenham’ for his stinging and acerbic verses criticising and lampooning his enemies. The following couplet by Pope constitutes the entire poem – so it’s just two lines long:
I am his Highness’ dog at Kew,
Pray tell me sir, whose dog are you?
The poem was reportedly inscribed on the collar that was round the neck of a dog that Pope gave to the Prince of Wales in 1738. But the suggestion in the couplet, of course, is that everyone belongs to someone else – we are all somebody’s ‘dog’.
Oliver Goldsmith, ‘An Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog’. This poem by the Irish poet and playwright Oliver Goldsmith (1728-74) is about a rabid dog that bites a man, and the effect that this act of violence has on the people of London.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, ‘To Flush, My Dog’. Flush is one of the most famous dogs in all of English literature – one of the most famous real dogs, anyway. He was the cocker spaniel belonging to Barrett Browning (1806-61), and would later feature in one of the weirdest and funniest works of modernist literature, Virginia Woolf’s ‘biographical’ novel, Flush (1933). In this poem, Barrett Browning sings her pet’s praises.
Matthew Arnold, ‘Geist’s Grave’. And as well as penning ‘Thyrsis’, his celebrated elegy for the death of his old friend Arthur Hugh Clough, and ‘Dover Beach’, his lament for Victorian faith, Arnold (1822-88) also wrote elegies for his pet dog Geist and his canary Matthias. In ‘Geist’s Grave’, Arnold celebrates the four brief years he had his dog Geist, the dachshund who was his ‘little friend’, in his life. (We’ve compiled more classic Matthew Arnold poems here.)
Emily Dickinson, ‘A little Dog that wags his tail’. Elsewhere, Dickinson wrote beautifully about the movement and behaviour of the cat; in this poem, she ponders the sheer delight of the dog wagging its tail, which is comparable to a little boy frolicking freely simply because he wants to – both the dog and the boy behave the way they do because that’s how they’re made, not for any more complex or cynical motive.
Thomas Hardy, ‘A Popular Personage at Home’. One of two poems Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) wrote about his beloved dog of 13 years, Wessex, who died in 1926, two years before Hardy himself. However, what makes ‘A Popular Personage at Home’ especially notable is that Hardy wrote the poem from the perspective of the dog, allowing ‘Wessex’ to speak for himself.
Rudyard Kipling, ‘The Power of the Dog’. This poem by Kipling (1865-1936) extols the dog’s most famous virtue – its undying loyalty and devotion to its owner – but also warns against giving your heart to a dog for it ‘to tear’. Such is ‘the power of the dog’.
Sir Walter Raleigh, ‘To A Lady With An Unruly And Ill-Mannered Dog Who Bit Several Persons Of Importance’. No, not that Sir Walter Raleigh (the one who didn’t introduce the potato and tobacco to Europe, and never laid down his cloak over a puddle for Queen Elizabeth I), but the Professor of English – one of the first in Britain – who was also an occasional poet. Here, he berates a lady for the behaviour of her ‘hydrophobic’ – i.e. rabid – pet.
Ogden Nash, ‘The Dog’. This short four-line poem exemplifies Nash’s accessible, humorous style: it celebrates the dog as a creature full of love and devotion.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, ‘Dog’. The American poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti (b. 1919) wrote this, one of the finest poems about a dog. Ferlinghetti shows us the world from a dog’s perspective: the things it sees, smells, and hears, from drunks in doorways to cats and cigars.
If you enjoyed this pick of the best classic dog poems, continue to explore the canine side of literature with our great facts about writers and their relationship with man’s proverbial best friend. For more animal-related poetry see our pick of the greatest animal poems, the best poems about mice and rats and these classic horse poems. The ailurophile might also enjoy these book recommendations for cat lovers. For more classic poetry, we recommend The Oxford Book of English Verse – perhaps the best poetry anthology on the market. We’d also recommend the 1893 anthology The Dog in British Poetry, which can be read in full online here.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.