Poets often keep a variety of pets – loyal or silent companions who have kept them company while they sat and worked, or who even helped to inspire some of their poems. The Victorian poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti is thought to have owned, at one time or another, a deer, salamander, kangaroo, laughing jackass, chameleon, squirrel, mole, woodchuck, parakeet, wombat, and several owls. Some poets have even immortalised their beloved pets in verse; we choose ten of our favourite ‘pet poems’ below.
Anonymous, ‘Pangur Bán’. We begin this selection of pet poems over a millennium ago. This Old Irish poem was written by a monk about his cat, in around the 9th century, and found in a monastery in Austria. (Pangur Bán is the name of the monk’s cat.) Describing the life of the monk in his study with his cat as his happy companion, this pet poem has everything for the pet-lover and book-lover. Just as the scholar goes in search of knowledge, so his faithful companion goes in search of mice.
Thomas Gray, ‘Ode on the Death of a Favourite Cat, Drowned in a Tub of Gold Fishes’. Of course, sometimes pets die before their time, through misadventure. Thomas Gray is remembered chiefly for three poems, although he was a much better-known figure in his own day (1716-1771). This poem, written about the cat belonging to Gray’s friend Horace Walpole, inventor of the Gothic novel; Walpole’s cat did indeed drown in 1747.
Christopher Smart, from Jubilate Agno (‘My Cat Jeoffry’).
For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his way.
For this is done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer …
Christopher ‘Kit’ Smart (1722-1771) was confined to a mental asylum for a number of years, and it was during his confinement that Smart wrote Jubilate Agno (‘Rejoice in the Lamb’), a religious poem composed between 1759 and 1763. (The poem was only first published in 1939.) Jeoffry was Smart’s only companion during his time in the asylum, and Smart wrote this touching celebration of his feline friend. Jeoffrey has been called the ‘most famous cat in the whole history of English literature’ by one of Smart’s biographers, Neil Curry. We’d add that he’s perhaps the most famous poet’s pet.
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 Elizabeth 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,
See the link above to read the rest of Barrett Browning’s poem about her beloved pet.
Matthew Arnold, ‘Geist’s Grave’. And as well as penning ‘Thyrsis’, his celebrated elegy for his friend and fellow poet, Arthur Hugh Clough, Matthew 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?
You can read the full poem by following the link included above.
Christina Rossetti, ‘My Mouse’.
From shifting tides set safe apart,
In no mere bottle, in my heart …
This poem explores how greatness can reside in the very small: ‘A Venus seems my Mouse’, Rossetti tells us, ‘Which in a small way and at ease / Keeps house’. Supposedly written as a ‘thank you’ note, this is one of a number of mouse poems which Rossetti wrote, along with ‘The City Mouse and the Garden Mouse’ and ‘If a Mouse’.
Thomas Hardy, ‘Last Words to a Dumb Friend’.
Never another pet for me!
Let your place all vacant be;
Better blankness day by day
Than companion torn away.
Better bid his memory fade,
Better blot each mark he made,
Selfishly escape distress
By contrived forgetfulness,
Than preserve his prints to make
Every morn and eve an ache.
Hardy (1840-1928) wrote a number of poems about the family pets, including several about the various dogs the family owned. This moving poem about the death of one of the many Hardy cats was probably not composed for the brilliantly named Kiddleywinkempoops (known as ‘Trot’ for short), but for another much-loved Hardy feline.
Koon Woon, ‘Goldfish’. Koon Woon (b. 1949) is a Chinese-American poet and editor. In this poem about his pet goldfish, which begins ‘The goldfish in my bowl / turns into a carp each night’, he imagines the double life of metamorphosis his goldfish lives at night.
Cate Marvin, ‘The Pet’. Marvin (b. 1969) is an American poet, who here writes beautifully about a pet horse she used to ride around the village where she grew up. Taking pity on the animal, she took him in as a pet. When people ask her why she took him in and how she can keep such a big pet indoors, she replies: ‘I tell them my heart is huge and its doors / are small. Once I took him in he grew.’
Polly Atkin, ‘Rabbit in Morning’. This delightful poem by the contemporary British poet Polly Atkin heads the list of a longer compilation of rabbit poems (see the link to Josephine Corcoran’s website above). There’s plenty here for anyone with a pet rabbit, or who knows someone with pet rabbits, seeking a poem about these fascinating creatures. As Atkin’s poem begins, ‘When I wake in the morning you are waiting for me, / sat in the yard, still as a tree stump, / only your eyes and nostrils moving …’