In ‘A little Dog that wags his tail’ Emily Dickinson explores themes of human nature, the purpose of life, and freedom. Throughout the text, she comments on the pleasures of taking simple joys from life and the purposeless governing that “adults” try to exert over the world. Happiness, such as that seen in the wagging of a dog’s tail, is compared through metaphor to the youthful happiness of childhood.
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Summary of A little Dog that wags his tail
Emily Dickinson begins this poem by speaking about seeing a dog wag its tail. It is a simple pleasure, stimulated by unadulterated joy. This image reminds her of a boy who gambols without “an earthly cause”. He does so because “he is a little Boy” and that’s all. Both the dog and the boy act in accordance with their own instincts.
In the last lines, she speaks on a cat and its war with a mouse then turns to address a class of adults she dislikes. These are people who look down on children acting like children and the play they engage in.
Structure of A little Dog that wags his tail
‘A little Dog that wags his tail’ by Emily Dickinson is a four stanza poem that is separated into sets of four lines, known as quatrains. These quatrains follow a simple rhyme scheme of ABCB, changing end sounds from stanza to stanza. The lines are also very similar in length.
The odd-numbered lines, starting with one, each contain four sets of two beats for a total of eight syllables. Of these, the first beat is unstressed and the second is stressed, known as iambic tetrameter. The even-numbered lines have three sets of two beats for a total of six syllables. Both of these start with an unstressed syllable and are followed by a stressed syllable. Of these, the first beat is unstressed and the second is stressed, known as iambic trimeter.
Dickinson’s Dashes and Capitalization
Scholars are divided over what this intermittent punctuation could mean. But in this case, the dashes are easily read as moments in which the speaker was overwhelmed or thinking hard before proceeding. The pauses represent a desire to create drama and tension in the text. It is also a way for the reader, speaker, and even Dickinson herself, to gather thoughts together before moving on to the next line.
One should also consider the use of capitalization in these lines. This is another technique that Dickinson is known for, and which causes confusion among students and scholars alike. There is no single definitive reason why Dickinson capitalized the words she did. Often, the words she chose were the most prominent of the lines, the ones that were the most evocative and meaningful. This appears to be the case in ‘A little Dog that wags his tail’ as well.
Poetic Techniques in A little Dog that wags his tail
Dickinson makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘A little Dog that wags his tail’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, enjambment, and metaphor. The latter is one of the most important techniques in this poem.
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. In this case, the boy, all children, and those with an instinctual purpose in life are compared to the dog and those who work, control, and want silence is compared to the cat.
Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “Cat” and “Corner” in the first line of the third stanza and “Beseech” and “Boy” in the last line of the fourth stanza.
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. This technique can be seen throughout the poem. Examples include the transitions between lines one and two of the first stanza and two and three of the third stanza.
Analysis of A little Dog that wags his tail
A little Dog that wags his tail
And knows no other joy
Of such a little Dog am I
Reminded by a Boy
In the first stanza of ‘‘A little Dog that wags his tail,’ the speaker begins by making use of the line that later came to be used as the title of the poem. This line brings to the reader’s mind an image of an excited dog with a wagging tail. The image is one of joy without preconception or condition. It “knows no other joy”. This is the only way of being the dog knows, and the speaker appreciates and accepts that.
In the second set of lines, she compares this joy and the instinctual way the dog participates in it to “a Boy”. The image of the joyful dog brings “a boy” to her mind. The second stanza reveals why.
Who gambols all the living Day
Without an earthly cause
Because he is a little Boy
I honestly suppose —
In these lines of ‘A little Dog that wags his tail,’ the speaker explains how the dog and the boy are similar. They are both living “all the living Day”. They do what they please, feel as they choose, and take pleasure from simple things. There is no “earthly cause” for their actions. He is a “little Boy” and does what little boys do. The child’s playing is similar in nature to the dog’s general disposition.
The Cat that in the Corner dwells
Her martial Day forgot
The Mouse but a Tradition now
Of her desireless Lot
The third stanza brings in the juxtaposed image and metaphor of the cat in the corner. This creature is very different than the dog. She sits, “Her martial day forgot”. This line speaks to a way of the past, a purpose that is long since forgotten. The cat used to hunt mice but now it is a tradition of the past. She is “desireless”. There is nothing the cat really wants out of life except to get on with it.
Another class remind me
Who neither please nor play
But not to make a “bit of noise”
Beseech each little Boy —
The cat and her disposition are compared to the “Another class”. This brings the fourth image into Dickinson’s head, those who “neither please nor play”. They are the group that would tell a child to stop play or stop making noise. These people, jaded adults, value nothing but their own peace of mind and the continuation of the day as it is.