By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
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. Dogs have been a popular theme in English poetry for many centuries, and in 1893 an anthology, The Dog in British Poetry, was even published (pleasingly, it can be read in full online here).
But below we’ve whittled down the list of great dog poems to 10 essential doggy choices. Far from being doggerel (see what we did there?), the dog poems included below are guaranteed to set tails wagging everywhere. We hope you enjoy these favourite classic dog poems – but have we missed off any favourites?
1. 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’.
2. 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:
And in that town a dog was found,
As many dogs there be,
Both mongrel, puppy, whelp and hound,
And curs of low degree.
This dog and man at first were friends;
But when a pique began,
The dog, to gain some private ends,
Went mad and bit the man.
Follow the link above to read the full poem, and learn more about the poem and its author.
3. 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:
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,
Follow the link above to read the rest of Barrett Browning’s touching dog-poem.
4. 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:
That loving heart, that patient soul,
Had they indeed no longer span,
To run their course, and reach their goal,
And read their homily to man?
That liquid, melancholy eye,
From whose pathetic, soul-fed springs
Seem’d urging the Virgilian cry,
The sense of tears in mortal things—
That steadfast, mournful strain, consol’d
By spirits gloriously gay,
And temper of heroic mould—
What, was four years their whole short day?
These are just three stanzas from the much longer poem, which you can read by following the link included above. We’ve compiled more classic Matthew Arnold poems here.
5. 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:
A little Dog that wags his tail
And knows no other joy
Of such a little Dog am I
Reminded by a Boy
Who gambols all the living Day
Without an earthly cause
Because he is a little Boy
I honestly suppose –
The full poem is included above.
6. 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.
But the speaker is reminiscent of Hardy himself, with some suggestive nods to the changes wrought upon the English landscape (since the Industrial Revolution) and Hardy’s well-documented fear that the England he knew and loved was not going to last, and had indeed already begun to fade from view:
‘No doubt I shall always cross this sill,
And turn the corner, and stand steady,
Gazing back for my Mistress till
She reaches where I have run already,
‘And that this meadow with its brook,
And bulrush, even as it appears
As I plunge by with hasty look,
Will stay the same a thousand years.’
The full poem is included above.
7. 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’:
There is sorrow enough in the natural way
From men and women to fill our day;
And when we are certain of sorrow in store,
Why do we always arrange for more?
Brothers and sisters, I bid you beware
Of giving your heart to a dog to tear.
Read the full poem by following the link above.
8. 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:
Your dog is not a dog of grace;
He does not wag the tail or beg;
He bit Miss Dickson in the face;
He bit a Bailie in the leg.
What tragic choices such a dog
Presents to visitor or friend!
Outside there is the Glasgow fog;
Within, a hydrophobic end.
Well, not all dog poems can be entirely laudatory, can they? You read the rest of the poem by following the link provided.
9. 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.
10. 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.
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.