In ‘Dharma’ Collins touches on themes of freedom, the purpose of life, and animal/human relationships. These themes come together as the speaker juggles the meaning of life and how it is different for humans and animals. The latter, he decides, specifically dogs, are much better at living unencumbered than humans are.
Summary of Dharma
The poem expresses the speaker’s belief that dogs live better, less encumbered lives than even the best of human beings do. He uses Gandhi and Thoreau as examples. What qualities do they have, the speaker wonders, that his dog doesn’t?
In the last lines, he outlines some of the things that are a little difficult about his dog. Then, he ends the poem with a powerful statement about his position in his dog’s life.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure of Dharma
‘Dharma’ by Billy Collins is a four stanza poem that is separated into uneven sets of lines. The first contains seven lines, the second: five, the third: six, and the fourth: ten lines. The poem does not rhyme, but that does not mean the lines are without some sort of unity. In addition to making use of poetic devices and figurative language, there are several moments where Collins uses half-rhyme within the lines. Half-rhyme, also known as slant or partial rhyme, is seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line or multiple lines of verse.
Poetic Techniques in Dharma
Collins makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Dharma’. These include but are not limited to metaphor, allusion, enjambment, and accumulation. The latter, accumulation, is a literary device that relates to a list of words or phrases that have similar, if not the same, meanings. In a poem, story, or novel, these words are grouped together or appear scattered throughout a work. They collect or pile up, and a theme, image, sensation, or deeper meaning is revealed. For example, in the final stanza the speaker piles up three or four of the things that might change about his dog.
An allusion is an expression that’s meant to call something specific to mind without directly stating it. In the second stanza, the poet alludes to Thoreau and his time at Walden lake by speaking about the “hut” and his meager possessions.
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transition between lines one and two, as well as between three and four, in the first stanza.
A metaphor is a comparison between two, unlike things that does not use “like” or “as” is also present in the text. When using this technique a poet is saying that one thing is another thing, they aren’t just similar. There is a great example in the first stanza when he compares his heart to a saucer of milk.
Analysis of Dharma
In the first stanza of ‘Dharma,’ the speaker begins by describing the actions of “the dog” very simply. He speaks of the creature’s movements as lighthearted and untroubled. She “trots” into the door “every morning”. She doesn’t have to carry “a hat or umbrella”. These things do not worry about her, in fact, they don’t even touch her mind. There are no keys to “her doghouse”.
A metaphor is used in the last two lines of this stanza to describe the speaker’s interaction with the dog in these moments. She always “fills” his heart, which is compared to a saucer or bowl, with “milky admiration”. The image of a bowl full of milk is compared to a warm heart and happiness.
In the second stanza of ‘Dharma,’ the speaker asks, rhetorically, if there is anyone or anything that provides an example of “a life without encumbrance”. There is no “finer,” or better, example of a burdenless life. Thoreau and Gandhi who are both referenced in this stanza are no better examples than this dog is.
Collins uses humor, as is often the case in his poems, to speak about Gandhi and “his holy diapers” and Thoreau’s “single spoon”.
The third stanza explains to the reader why the speaker sees this dog as the best example of a well-lived life. The dog, “she,” goes into the world with “nothing but her brown coat / and her modest blue collar”. She doesn’t seek out possessions, nor does she desire anything more than to follow her “wet nose”. They lead her and following behind her is her tail.
Lightheartedly, Collins describes how she often shoves “the cat aside”. This is one character trait he thinks they could do without. Aside from this, and her eagerness for a “rub behind the ears,” she would be perfect.
The last line of the poem is moving and gets to the heart of what it is like to own and love and be loved by a dog. He speaks to his position as the “god” in his dog’s life as one of the things that set her back from having a truly boundless and free life.