‘To A Lady With An Unruly And Ill-Mannered Dog Who Bit Several Persons Of Importance’ is a long title for what is not that long a poem. Its author was Sir Walter Raleigh – not the Elizabethan and Jacobean explorer and poet (who didn’t introduce tobacco and potatoes to Europe), but the Professor of English Literature named Sir Walter Raleigh (1861-1922). Raleigh was, notably, the first person to hold a Chair in English Literature at the University of Oxford. Raleigh was also a successful poet, as ‘To A Lady With An Unruly And Ill-Mannered Dog Who Bit Several Persons Of Importance’ demonstrates.
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.
Yet some relief even terror brings,
For when our life is cold and gray
We waste our strength on little things,
And fret our puny souls away.
A snarl! A scruffle round the room!
A sense that Death is drawing near!
And human creatures reassume
The elemental robe of fear.
So when my colleague makes his moan
Of careless cooks, and warts, and debt,
–Enlarge his views, restore his tone,
And introduce him to your Pet!
‘To A Lady With An Unruly And Ill-Mannered Dog Who Bit Several Persons Of Importance’ is a poem in which the dog has its teeth firmly in the Bailie’s leg and Raleigh has his tongue firmly in his cheek. The threat of being bitten by a dog (and possibly contracting a serious disease, such as rabies: see Raleigh’s reference to a ‘hydrophobic end’) keeps humans on their toes, since it reminds them of their own mortality an helps put things into perspective: ‘A sense that Death is drawing near!’
Sir Walter Raleigh held a number of academic posts throughout his career: as a young man he was Professor of English Literature at the Mohammedan Anglo-Oriental College in Aligarh in India (1885–87), before moving to Liverpool to take up the post of Professor of Modern Literature (1890–1900). He then became Regius Professor of English Language and Literature at Glasgow University (1900–1904), before finally becoming Professor of English Literature at Oxford. This was a time when the teaching of English Literature at university level was still in its infancy: before this, if you wished to study literature at university, you studied Classics.
But Raleigh’s finest achievement as a poet was perhaps writing a poem with the glorious title ‘To A Lady With An Unruly And Ill-Mannered Dog Who Bit Several Persons Of Importance’. As titles go, it sets the bar rather high.