Hardy’s classic dog poem – analysed by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘A Popular Personage at Home’ was 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.
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.
‘Along the path, amid the grass
I sniff, and find out rarest smells
For rolling over as I pass
The open fields toward the dells.
‘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.’
Thus ‘Wessex.’ But a dubious ray
At times informs his steadfast eye,
Just for a trice, as though to say,
‘Yet, will this pass, and pass shall I?’
This is an uncharacteristically witty and playful poem. Thomas Hardy wrote a great deal of poetry, and some of it, such as ‘The Ruined Maid’, demonstrates a playful irony while addressing one of the most serious issues of Victorian England (the way ‘fallen’ women are viewed by society). But on the whole, although he is alive to what he called ‘life’s little ironies’, Hardy is not fond of archness in his poetry. ‘With the folk I let live here with me’: the canine speaker takes on an almost feline idea, viewing the humans who dwell with him as within his control rather than vice versa.
But the poem is not just a twee piece of doggerel (the pun, perhaps, is inevitable): its final two stanzas seem to hint at grander thoughts. Although it looks as though the landscape (with which, of course, Wessex the dog shares his name) will ‘stay the same for a thousand years’, in that final stanza a nagging doubt creeps in, as a ‘dubious ray’ appears in the dog’s ‘steadfast eye’. W. B. Yeats may have said that ‘Nor dread nor hope attend / A dying animal’, concluding that ‘Man has created death’, but in the last line of Hardy’s poem, his ‘popular personage at home’ almost appears to have gained that knowledge supposedly denied to animals: awareness of one’s own mortality. But it’s more than this: will everything else pass as well, including the landscape? Thomas Hardy was deeply conscious of the geological changes that the Earth had undergone over millions of years (which we now know to be billions), and his amusing poem about the family dog is haunted by the same concerns which plague his novels and poetry elsewhere.
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.