Literature

A Short Analysis of Oliver Goldsmith’s ‘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.

An Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog

Good people all, of every sort,
Give ear unto my song;
And if you find it wondrous short,
It cannot hold you long.

In Islington there was a man,
Of whom the world might say
That still a godly race he ran,
Whene’er he went to pray.

A kind and gentle heart he had,
To comfort friends and foes;
The naked every day he clad,
When he put on his clothes.

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.

Around from all the neighbouring streets
The wondering neighbours ran,
And swore the dog had lost his wits,
To bite so good a man.

The wound it seemed both sore and sad
To every Christian eye;
And while they swore the dog was mad,
They swore the man would die.

But soon a wonder came to light,
That showed the rogues they lied:
The man recovered of the bite,
The dog it was that died.

‘An Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog’, although it is announced as an elegy on a dog, is more properly a satire on an elegy. In summary, we are presented with a good and pious man, a good Christian, who appears to be a fine example of Christianity and well-liked by the townspeople. But Goldsmith is actually being ironic: there is little that’s good about this man. Goldsmith depicts the man’s journey to church of a Sunday as a ‘godly race’, which is faintly ridiculous, as is the notion that ‘The naked every day he clad, / When he put on his clothes.’ No: when he puts on his clothes he clothes himself, no one else.

When a dog goes mad (‘to gain some private ends’, we are told – as if a dog can hatch such a plot for advancement) and bites the man, the townspeople assume that this good and pious man will die from the rabid bite. But in a twist, the biter, rather than the bitten, dies: ‘The dog it was that died.’ The implication is that the man was so toxic (because he was far from being a good Christian really) that the dog, through biting him, has been poisoned by him.

‘An Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog’ is thus a comic satire on the way outward appearances are often at odds with private feelings and behaviours: a man may appear to be a good practising Christian, but he is really out for himself.