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Dogs, from "Epitaph to a Dog," a poem by George Gordon, Lord Byron

Subthemes: Pets, Expense, Shows and Competitions

Epitaph to a Dog, by George Gordon Byron, praises Boatswain, his five-year old Newfoundland dog, who had just died of rabies. Byron compares the admirable traits of his dog – and dogs generally – to the sad and sordid mess of humans.. Unlike preening, boastful humans, the virtues of the dog were genuine and revered. Other subthemes of Dogs appear from this poetic headstone.

Near this Spot
are deposited the Remains of one
who possessed Beauty without Vanity,
Strength without Insolence,
Courage without Ferosity,
and all the virtues of Man without his Vices.
This praise, which would be unmeaning Flattery
if inscribed over human Ashes,
is but a just tribute to the Memory of
BOATSWAIN, a DOG,
who was born in Newfoundland May 1803
and died at Newstead Nov. 18th, 1808.

When some proud Son of Man returns to Earth,
Unknown to Glory but upheld by Birth,
The sculptor’s art exhausts the pomp of woe,
And storied urns record who rests below:
When all is done, upon the Tomb is seen
Not what he was, but what he should have been.
But the poor Dog, in life the firmest friend,
The first to welcome, foremost to defend,
Whose honest heart is still his Master’s own,
Who labours, fights, lives, breathes for him alone,
Unhonour’d falls, unnotic’d all his worth,
Deny’d in heaven the Soul he held on earth:
While man, vain insect! hopes to be forgiven,
And claims himself a sole exclusive heaven.
Oh man! thou feeble tenant of an hour,
Debas’d by slavery, or corrupt by power,
Who knows thee well, must quit thee with disgust,
Degraded mass of animated dust!
Thy love is lust, thy friendship all a cheat,
Thy tongue hypocrisy, thy heart deceit!
By nature vile, ennobled but by name,
Each kindred brute might bid thee blush for shame.
Ye! who behold perchance this simple urn,
Pass on, it honors none you wish to mourn.
To mark a friend’s remains these stones arise;
I never knew but one—and here he lies.

actual headstone

Pets: We love our furry friends, who possess all the virtues of Man without his Vices. Dogs as companions and working partners are valued by more than 80 million U.S. owners, according to the American Kennel Club. A higher number, and only of dogs as pets, appears on Statista: According to a pet owners survey, there were approximately 89.7 million dogs owned in the United States in 2017, an increase of 20 million from 2000. Lord Byron must have adored his Boatswain –

To mark a friend’s remains these stones arise; I never knew but one—and here he lies.

Oh, and in case you are wondering, the most dogs ever owned by one person were 5,000 Mastiffs owned by Kubla Khan.

Expense: Shelter dogs cost almost nothing to acquire, but pure-bred puppies of some breeds cost thousands of dollars. Dogs do accumulate expenses, however. Veterinarian bills, especially emergency room visits, can mount up. Dog walkers typically charge between 19 and 29 dollars for a 30-minute stroll and boarding costs much more. Food for the furry four-legger adds to their cost, as do shots, spaying, and possibly training. Then too there are expenditures for crates, coats, insurance, collars and leashes – and the occasional damage they wreak. The biggest cost is the time spent walking them. For affluent folks in the U.S., a dog runs up the bill.

Shows and Competitions: We learn from Dog Time that “The first recorded dog show was a field trial organized by Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II in 1603.” In contemporary dog shows, dogs don’t compete on athleticism (or dance, but instead each dog is judged on how well it represents the published standards for is breed. Judges examine each dog to see how well teeth, muscles, bones, and coat texture conform to the breed’s official standards. Why don’t they compete on sniffing scents?

Three national dog shows take place in the United States each year: the American Kennel Club/Eukanuba National Championship, The National Dog Show, and the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. The Westminster is the oldest, dating back to 1877. It is held annually at Madison Square Garden in New York City in mid-February and around 2,500 dogs take part. Dogs must be either invited to enter or have Championship status or have won at least one 3-, 4-, or 5-point major award. To obtain, prepare, primp and promote a dog that can prance and dance before the judges at the international level can exceed $50,000 a year. That covers, travel, entry fees, specialized trainers and walkers, publicity, insurance, and more for the swanky shows.

 

Byron must have revered Boatswain for him to write so passionately about his pet’s virtues, and to compare that Newfoundland dog so favorably and eloquently to humans. A dog is a poet’s best friend.

If you are interested in further thoughts on the concept of Dogs, consider other subthemes that don’t fit as directly to the poem, painting, rock song, and movie written about in this series. For an overview, this article explains Themes from Art or click on the navigation bar, About.

We invite you to read about other poems discussed on this blog, and their themes. Here they are:

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