What are the greatest classic animal poems? Selected by Dr Oliver Tearle
From cats to mice, dogs to horses, fish to pigs, poets have written touchingly, powerfully, and enchantingly about animals. In this post we’ve chosen ten of our favourite poems about animals of all kinds. What would feature on your list of the best animal poems?
1. Robert Henryson, ‘The Paddock and the Mouse’.
Upon a time, as Aesop could report,
A little Mouse came to a river side;
She might not wade, her shanks were so short;
She could not swim, she had no horse to ride:
Of verray force behove it her to bide,
And to and fro beside that river deep
She ran, crying with many piteous peep …
We get two animals for the price of one in this medieval poem: a frog and a mouse (‘paddock’ is an old word for a frog). Three centuries before Robert Burns would write his more famous poem about a mouse, the fifteenth-century poet Robert Henryson wrote this, a verse translation of one of Aesop’s fables.
It’s written in Middle Scots – the medieval Scots dialect – and tells of a mouse that wishes to cross a stream. A paddock/frog offers to help, with disastrous results. The version we’ve linked to above is a modernised translation of Henryson’s poem.
2. Anna Seward, ‘An Old Cat’s Dying Soliloquy‘.
Years saw me still Acasto’s mansion grace,
The gentlest, fondest of the tabby race;
Before him frisking through the garden glade,
Or at his feet in quiet slumber laid;
Praised for my glossy back of zebra streak,
And wreaths of jet encircling round my neck;
Soft paws that ne’er extend the clawing nail,
The snowy whisker and the sinuous tail …
Seward (1742-1809) was an English poet who was known as the ‘Swan of Lichfield’ and even ‘th’immortal Muse of Britain‘. She knew those other great Lichfield figures of the age, Erasmus Darwin and Samuel Johnson, who often met at the Bishop’s Palace where Seward lived (her father was a prebendary in the local church). A precocious child, she was taught to read Shakespeare, Milton, and Pope at the age of three. Sir Walter Scott would later be responsible for publishing Seward’s poetry. She never married, but lived with her father at the Bishop’s Palace until he died in 1790; thereafter, she remained at the Palace until her death 19 years later.
This poem first appeared in the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1792, and manages to convey the cat’s voice in a manner that is ironic and amusing but also touching and poignant, since the cat realises that she will miss her master when she has died.
3. Robert Burns, ‘To a Mouse’.
Wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie,
O, what a panic’s in thy breastie!
Thou need na start awa sae hasty,
Wi’ bickering brattle!
I wad be laith to rin an’ chase thee,
Wi’ murd’ring pattle!
Probably the most famous poem about a mouse ever written. The full title of this poem is ‘To a Mouse, On Turning Her up in Her Nest with the Plough, November 1785’. That full title explains what the poem is about – and it was probably based on a real event, when Burns accidentally destroyed a mouse’s nest while ploughing a field.
4. John Clare, ‘Badger’.
The badger grunting on his woodland track
With shaggy hide and sharp nose scrowed with black
Roots in the bushes and the woods, and makes
A great high burrow in the ferns and brakes.
With nose on ground he runs an awkward pace,
And anything will beat him in the race …
One of Clare’s most celebrated poems, ‘Badger’, written in rhyming couplets, is about this overlooked animal (how many great poems about badgers are there in English literature?). After describing the badger’s appearance and habits, Clare then details how the badger is caught, trapped, and baited. One of the great poems about animal cruelty as well as a classic animal poem.
5. Emily Dickinson, ‘She sights a Bird – she chuckles’.
She sights a Bird—she chuckles—
She flattens—then she crawls—
She runs without the look of feet—
Her eyes increase to Balls—
Her Jaws stir—twitching—hungry—
Her Teeth can hardly stand—
She leaps, but Robin leaped the first—
Ah, Pussy, of the Sand …
This is the 507th poem in Dickinson’s Complete Poems, and – as so often with Emily Dickinson – the poem perfectly captures in short, telegrammatic style the essence of the thing being described. It took a genius like Dickinson to convey the way a cat flattens itself before crawling towards its prey, and the way the cat’s ‘eyes increase to Balls’ is, as ever with Dickinson, superbly well put. What more can one say?
6. Thomas Hardy, ‘A Popular Personage at Home’.
‘I live here: “Wessex” is my name:
I am a dog known rather well:
I guard the house but how that came
To be my whim I cannot tell.
‘With a leap and a heart elate I go
At the end of an hour’s expectancy
To take a walk of a mile or so
With the folk I let live here with me …
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.
7. Elizabeth Bishop, ‘The Fish’.
In this poem, Bishop’s speaker catches a fish but then lets it go; she delivers the first piece of information succinctly in the first line (‘I caught a tremendous fish’) and then the news that she let the fish go is delivered only in the poem’s final line; in between there is a long description of the fish and of the speaker’s growing awareness of it as part of a rich natural ecosystem. This has to be one of the most famous poems about fish.
8. 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.
9. Philip Larkin, ‘At Grass’.
A fine early poem – Larkin completed it in 1950, when he was still in his late twenties – ‘At Grass’ sees Larkin reflecting on old racehorses which are ‘put out to grass’. Do memories of the races they won fifteen years ago ‘plague their ears like flies’? Well, these retired racehorses have ‘slipped their names, and stand at ease’.
10. Ted Hughes, ‘View of a Pig’.
This poem almost reads like a sequel to the pig-slaughtering scene in Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure – and Hardy was an important influence on Hughes. The speaker of this poem looks down at a dead pig and remarks how utterly dead it is, and contrasts its now deadened and lifeless state with the warm, active creature that is the living pig. This is done unsentimentally and without inviting judgment about the poor pig’s fate.
Discover more great poems about animals with these classic poems about horses, these great dog poems, these classic cat poems, and these poems about birds. For more classic poetry, we recommend The Oxford Book of English Verse – perhaps the best poetry anthology on the market.
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.