The Victor Dog

James Merrill

‘The Victor Dog’ by James Merrill is a humorous, yet deep poem that puts the listener in the position of a dog listening to music, hearing but not understanding the complexity of its art.

Cite

James Merrill

Nationality: American

James Merrill was an American poet and the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1977.

His Divine Comedies won the Pulitzer Prize.

'The Victor Dog' is a humorous, yet complex poem about what art is and how to best appreciate it

‘The Victor Dog’  is one of the best-known and most critically acclaimed of James Merrill’s poems. Published in 1972 as part of Merrill’s collection Braving the Elements, ‘The Victor Dog’ analyzes how an artist must be an obedient and non-judgemental listener to understand the complexity of the creative process. 

While this poem, at face value, is a light, jovial, and easy piece to listen to, it includes many allusions, each of which has a deeper meaning. These allusions all join together through rhyme and wordplay, illustrating the way in which we perceive art. 

The poet argues that, as is the case with any piece of music, a lot of work, inspiration, and insight goes into even the shortest poem or song, which is something that most people fail to notice. However, ultimately, this poem makes the claim that art is still art, whether you “get it” or not.


Summary

‘The Victor Dog’  is a quatrain poem that brings the Victor Dog, the logo of the RCA Victor company, alive as he obediently and objectively listens to music. 

‘The Victor Dog’ opens by placing the Victor dog at the center of music as the unspecified speaker lists some of the musicians the dog listens to. The speaker makes it clear that the Victor dog, as if commanded by his master, listens to any and every style of music without ever feeling emotional about it. 

As the poem progresses, the speaker compares the Victor dog to other dogs from music and literature who are far less observant and obedient than the Victor dog. 

Suddenly, the record stops, and the Victor dog sleeps in place, dreaming that Handel has written an Opera about him. The speaker compares the Victor dog to canis minor, one of many stars in the sky. 

At the poem’s end, the speaker states that art, regardless of where it comes from or how well one understands it, is art. However, to understand and appreciate it, one must either function like the Victor dog, being observant and obedient, or be like the dogs that came before the Victor dog, appealing to emotion, barking, and disobeying. 

Form and Structure 

‘The Victor Dog’ is a quatrain poem written in iambic pentameter

The poem’s meter creates a very musical rhythm, which fits well within the main theme of music and art. 

The rhyme scheme is abba cddc, and so on. This organization of rhymes is called an envelope or enclosed rhyme scheme.

In addition, by putting a couplet in the middle of each stanza, thus dividing the first line and last, each stanza functions a bit like a loop, starting with one half of each rhyme and ending with the other half. In this way, Merrill creates the image of a record spinning on its platter. 

Literary Devices

The Victor Dog’ is a complex poem that synthesizes many literary devices, sometimes burying the underlying meaning of the poem intentionally, forcing the listener to “sniff out” the truth. 

The most notable literary devices in ‘The Victor Dog’ are: 

  • Allusion – This poem is one of the best examples of allusion in poetry. The references Merrill makes to various musicians, composers, plays, operas, genres, poems, and books are everywhere, within almost every line. 
  • Synaesthesia – The poet uses synaesthesia to describe how the Victor dog perceives music. For example, he uses smell, sound, and color in the lines “I fancy he rather smells / Those lemon-gold arpeggios.”
  • Apostrophe – The poem’s speaker asks the listener several rhetorical questions, such as “Does he hear?”
  • Metaphor – This poem includes several metaphors that last throughout the entire piece. For example, in this poem, music is a metaphor for art and dogs are a metaphor for an audience or listener.
  • Pun and wordplay – Merril’s interesting and humorous use of puns and wordplay in ‘The Victor Dog’ lifts the tone and mood. For example, he uses the pun “Bach’s eternal boxwood mazes” to make light of Bach, considered one of the most emotionally-charged composers. Other examples of wordplay include “It’s all in a day’s work, whatever plays,” poking fun at the idea of work and play. 


Themes

With intense allusions to different genres of music and musicians, the theme at the heart of ‘The Victor Dog’ is art. 

The speaker questions how well the Victor dog perceives art throughout the poem, often challenging how well the dog understands the emotions that music can contain. In addition, this poem looks at how one can perceive art through art by using the symbol of the Victor dog, a dog depicted in a painting that the RCA Victor company uses as its logo. 

With shifting lenses of looking at music through poetry and sensing music beyond sound, this poem has many layers, all of which function to peel back the truth that art, beyond any perception of it, is art. 

However, the speaker looks at art through the lens of obedience as the Victor dog never moves, barks, howls, or falters. He is objective, unemotional, and listens to “his master’s voice” unwaveringly. Ultimately, this obedience is only superficial, as the dog dreams of inspiring an opera. 

Detailed Analysis

Stanza One

for Elizabeth Bishop



Bix to Buxtehude to Boulez.

The little white dog on the Victor label

Listens long and hard as he is able.

It’s all in a day’s work, whatever plays.

In stanza one of ‘The Victor Dog’ by James Merrel, the speaker alludes to three musicians and introduces the main symbol of the poem — the “little white dog on the victor label.”

The musicians of the first line span many generations and musical styles. Bix was a jazz musician of the early 1900s, Buxtehude was a baroque composer of the 17th century, and Boulez was a French composer contemporary to the poet. 

Thus, the speaker indirectly informs the listener that this poem is about music, irrespective of when it was made or who made it. 

In addition, the musicians and composers of the poem’s first line all have names that begin with a B. This careful selection of B-names is another allusion to the poem’s dedicatee, Elizabeth Bishop, a contemporary poet, and friend of James Merrill. 

However, it is also a bit of a joke, as, in the musical community, Brahms, Beethoven, and Bach are the three “Big B’s” in classical music. Here, the listener can sense an air of humor in the poem, as if the speaker is making fun of themself. This gives the poem a fun, slightly silly mood — at least on the surface, anyway. 

The “little white dog on the Victor label” in this poem is, at face value, the logo of the Victor record company. This little white dog was originally the subject of a painting titled His Master’s Voice by James Barraud. In this painting, a small white dog looks inquisitively into a phonograph as if confused about why music is coming from a machine. 

This painting became the logo of the RCA Victor record company and all of its international subsidiaries, representing the discerning quality of all products and music produced through RCA. It appeared on many RCA records on the decal in the center of the vinyl, and it is still the primary logo of the HMV (His Master’s Voice) and RCA brand. 

In this poem, the Victor dog comes alive, listening to each record that the speaker plays. While a careful listener, this dog listens hard to “whatever plays.” 

As the poem progresses, it becomes increasingly clear that the Victor dog is a metaphor for the listener of the poem (you), who listens to each song carefully, objectively, and unemotionally. 

Stanza Two

From judgment, it would seem, he has refrained.

(…)

He’s man’s—no—he’s the Leiermann’s best friend,

In stanza two, the speaker explains that the Victor dog does not judge each piece of music. 

The speaker states, using a pun, that the dog “even listens earnestly” to Earnest Bloch, an American composer of the early 1900s. 

The dog also “builds a church upon our acid rock,” a line packed with allusions.  Firstly, this line alludes to the biblical verse Matthew 7:24, in which Jesus states: 

Everyone therefore who hears these words of mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man, who built his house on a rock.

Jesus Christ, Matthew 7:24

This allusion implies that the Victor dog is wise and will last the test of time, just as the man who builds his house upon the rock is wise to avoid building a home on shifting sands. 

In addition, the biblical reference emphasizes that the Victor dog is, above all else, obedient and dutiful, as he follows this commandment of Jesus. He unquestioningly listens to all music, just as a good dog listens to his master. 

However, the Victor dog also builds his house upon “our acid rock,” an allusion to psychedelic rock music. 

The rhyme between “Bloch” and “acid rock,” like the Victor dog, ties these two vastly different pieces of music together, united by the little white dog.  

In the last line of the stanza, the speaker creates another pun, stating that the Victor dog is “Leiermann’s best friend.” This pun alludes to Franz Schubert’s ‘Der Leiermann’ or ‘The Hurdy-Gurdy Man.’

‘Der Leiermann’ is a very interesting piece to invoke here. The piece is based on a poem by Wilhelm Muller, a poet of the 19th century. This poem describes a poor old beggar busking on the cold winter streets with his hurdy-gurdy. In it, “die Hunde knurren / Um den alten Mann,” or “the dogs growl at the old man.”

An interesting reference, indeed, considering that Donovan, a modern psychedelic rock musician, also had a song called “Hurdy Gurdy Man.”

These connections between poetry and music from all ages and nationalities are at the heart of this poem, as it functions, much like the Victor dog, to find the link between all styles of music and art. 

Stanza Three

Or would be if hearing and listening were the same.

(…)

“Les jets d’eau du palais de ceux qui s’aiment.”

In stanza three of ‘The Victor Dog,” the speaker questions whether the dog actually hears the music or if he just listens to it. 

The speaker explains that the Victor dog would be Leiermann’s best friend if he understood the music. 

For example, while dogs may be obedient to their master’s commands, dogs simply do not understand English. Instead, dogs only understand that human beings expect certain behaviors from them when they hear the sounds of their master’s words. 

Similarly, the Victor dog “smells / those lemon-gold arpeggios,” as if he is sniffing for an animal or food. 

This line is also an excellent example of synaesthesia or the process of perceiving one thing through multiple senses. The dog smells for the sound of the arpeggios, which also have a “lemon-gold color.” Here, while an arpeggio is simply a sound, the dog sniffs for the color of the notes, creating a culmination of sight, sound, and smell. 

Following this example of synaesthesia, the speaker clarified that Victor sniffs the arpeggios in Ravel’s “Les jets d’eau du palais de ceux qui s’aiment,” which means “The fountains of the palace of those who love each other.” 

However, that is not the title of the piece to which the poet alludes. Instead, he is referencing “Jeux d’eaux,” meaning “Water-Play,” a composition meant to reflect the droplets of water that burst and fall from a fountain. 

By lengthening the title, the poet creates his own verbal version of the “arpeggios,” placing a smooth, iambic pentameter line of French into the stanza. Merril does similar things throughout the poem, attempting to capture genre and music with his alliteration, word length, and assonance

Stanza Four

He ponders the Schumann Concerto’s tall willow hit

(…)

The oboe pungent as a bitch in heat,

Stanza four catalogs some of the music that the Victor dog “smells.”

Although the pianos in Schumann’s Piano Concerto Op. 54 thunder like a “tall willow hit / by lightning,” the dog stays put as a keen, unafraid observer. The dog “surmises” or figures his way through Bach’s music as if finding his way through one of the mazes made with hedges that were popular in gardens of the Georgian era. 

Note that the poet chooses the word “boxwood” since it functions as a pun on Bach’s name. In the following line, the speaker describes the “oboe pungent as a bitch in heat,” likely alluding to Bach’s Concerto for Oboe d’amore

However, this reference still appeals to how the Victor dog cannot truly hear the music but instead sniffs out the good parts of the songs as if sniffing for a female dog in heat. 

Stanza Five

Or when the calypso decants its raw bay rum

(…)

Adamant needles bear down on him from

Stanza five lists the styles of music that the Victor dog “sniffs” or objectively listens to. 

The dog hears Calypso music, a genre of music from the Caribbean. This music “decants its ray bay rum,” referring to rum production in the Caribbean and Calypso music as a type of party music meant to be enjoyed with alcohol. 

In addition, “the moon in Wozzeck reddens ripe for murder,” an allusion to Wozzek, an opera by Alban Berg in which a man murders his cheating wife under a blood moon. 

Despite the contrasting mood of both drunken partying and serious, suspenseful murder, the Victor dog “doesn’t sneeze or howl; just listens harder.” 

The dog’s behavior indicates his obedience, objectivity, and attention, as he doesn’t let his emotions or understanding get in the way of his music analysis. He sits, and he listens, absorbing information about the techniques and styles within each song, but never fully understanding the sentiments within. 

The last line of stanza five refers to the bible, stating that “adamant needles bear down on him.” The needle is that of the record player, but it is “adamant” in reference to Adam from the story of Adam and Eve. In Genesis 3:18, warning Adam of the fall from Eden, god is quoted as saying: 

thorns also and thistles shall it bring forth to thee; and thou shalt eat the herb of the field;

This allusion places the Victor dog as Adam, the primordial man and father of all other men. However, “needles bear down on him” as if the music is a punishment, a sacrifice, or a source of suffering. 

Stanza Six

Whirling of outer space, too black, too near—

(…)

Who barked, fat foolish creature, at King Lear.

“Outer space, too black, too near” whirls around the dog, a metaphor for the black vinyl record spinning. However, it also stands for the spinning of space, with the Victor dog seated in the center on the axis of the earth, the spindle in the center of the record functioning as the pole that lifts up the vault of heaven (this will be important later). 

While all of the emotions, rhythms and songs whirl around the Victor dog, he does not flinch because “he was taught as a puppy not to flinch.” This statement raises the question of whether the dog is actually listening to the music or just posing, as if for a painting, holding his head still because he is blindly obedient to his master. 

With this implication, Merrill indirectly explains why this poem contains so many allusions and references — most of which are far too obscure for anyone to understand entirely. The speaker functions much like the music, which forces us, as listeners, to function much like the Victor dog. 

Thus, the listener of this poem listens to all of the sounds and words within. However, the listener likely cannot comprehend the depth of what the speaker is talking about. 

Like the dog, we can only “smell” a trace of the deeper meaning of this poem unless we engage in in-depth research and know enough about all genres of music, the bible, opera, and records to pick up on every pun and allusion. 

This concept implies that, as an objective observer, one can never truly understand what goes into making a piece of art. According to this piece, only the artist and god know the emotions and meaning within any song or poem. 

However, the speaker next compares the Victor dog to “his bête noire Blanche,” the “fat, foolish creature” who barked at King Lear. Bête noire means black beast in French, and it is an idiom, meaning something to be feared. By describing Blanche, which means “white” in French, as a bête noire, the speaker uses juxtaposition for the sake of humor and irony

Still, this reference is to King Lear, in which Lear states, “The little dogs and all / Tray, Blanch, and Sweet-heart, see, they bark at me.” Unlike these dogs, the intelligent, athletic Victor dog is far too obedient to bark at emotional music. 

Stanza Seven

Still others fought in the road’s filth over Jezebel,

(…)

Can nature change in him? Nothing’s impossible.

Stanza seven of ‘The Victor Dog’ contains another biblical reference, comparing the diligent and obedient Victor dog to the vicious dogs who consumed Jezebel’s body in the streets. These other dogs “slavered on hearths of horned and pelted barons,” drooling on warm animal furs by a fireplace. 

These two allusions make interesting implications as Merrill creates another pun in the line “His forebears lacked, to say the least, forbearance.” The speaker implies that the generations of dogs that came before the Victor dog were brutes, or uncivilized, dumb animals. Unlike the Victor dog, they were ruled by passion and instinct.

This allusion might be to the Edison-Bell company, referring to the adoption of Nipper, The Victor Dog, as the logo of the RCA company. 

The original painting of the Victor dog was by a man named Francis Barraud, who immortalized his late pet, Nipper, with a painting of him leaning into a phonograph. Barraud brought this painting to sell as a logo for James E. Hough of the Eddison-Bell company in 1898. However, Hough declined the offer, stating: 

 Dogs don’t listen to phonographs.

However, in 1899, The Gramophone Company, later known as RCA, bought the painting and the copyright to its title: His Master’s Voice.

By questioning the civility and “forbearance” of dogs before the Victor Dog, then, Merrill may be referring to the way people judge art. 

Unlike James E. Hough, who declined the painting, RCA saw the marketing potential of His Master’s Voice and quickly accepted it as their logo. Thus, the adoption of this logo was for the sake of progress — and for the sake of money. As such, like the Victor Dog, the RCA company is dedicated, non-judgmental, and attentive to the possibilities of music. 

Likewise, it may be a reference to human progress and the evolution of art. Just like how the Victor dog is a painting or copy of a real dog, records are merely a copy of a real live performance

Does that make records less of a piece of art? If records do not contain art, does that mean that the Victor dog is not a real dog?

The speaker questions, “Can nature change in him?” This inquiry again refers to the entire concept of the dog listening to music. Still, at the deepest level, it questions whether people or dogs can genuinely understand art or just “smell” it or appreciate it at face value. 

Stanza Eight

The last chord fades. The night is cold and fine.

(…)

He sleeps there on the still-warm gramophone

In stanza eight of ‘The Victor Dog,’ the record is over as Merrill incorporates a caesura, or midline pause, using periods. This pause zooms the poem’s focus back out into the present in a room where the record finally hits a stopping point. 

In line two, the speaker alludes to the title of the original painting of the Victor Dog and the name of one of the subsidiaries of RCA, His Master’s Voice, often abbreviated to HMV. 

This voice “rasps through the groove’s bare groves” as the record needle hits the record’s end, thus commanding the Victor dog to stop spinning. Once the record is over, Victor immediately and “obediently” sleeps “in silence like the graves,” emphasizing just how docile the dog is. 

The “still-warm gramophone” and the cold night refer back to the line “Slavered on hearths of horned and pelted barons,” which compares the Victor dog’s resting place to a warm hearth. However, the Victor dog, unlike its predecessors, lives on a machine, and the warmth he gets is not from a real fire but from the electric humming of the gramophone.

Sound is the Victor dog’s master, and as such, his master’s voice is not that of a real master but the voice of an artificial human being — a record. 

Stanza Nine 

Only to dream he is at the première of a Handel

(…)

A little dog revolving round a spindle

While the dog in ‘The Victor Dog’ is obedient enough to go straight to sleep when “His master’s voice” commands it, the master cannot control the dog’s dreams. 

As he sleeps, the Victor dog dreams of being at the premiere of a fictional lost opera by Handel titled “Il Cane Minore,” or “The Little Dog.” While there is no such opera named “Il Cane Minore,” this title is an allusion to canis minor, a constellation. 

Canis minor has two conflicting myths connected to it, and Merrill, with his taste for complex allusions, probably meant to invoke both tales. 

In one story, canis minor is one of Orion’s hunting dogs. 

In the other story, Canis minor is a dog named Maera. Maera was the dog of a winemaker named Icarius, who offered wine to some shepherds. However, the shepherds killed Icarus since they had never had wine before and believed that the wine-maker had poisoned them. Maera, being an obedient and loyal dog, ran to get Icarius’ daughter Erigone. Both the dog and Erigone felt such grief for Icarius that they took their own lives. 

The differences in these tales follow the comparisons between the Victor Dog’s forebears, “fat foolish creature[s],” and the loyal, obedient Victor dog. However, like the constellation, the Victor dog is just a depiction of a dog — he isn’t real. 

Thus, one must wonder if the Victor dog is actually obedient or trapped in his role as a listener. 

Further stressing this comparison is the fact that canis minor is a fixed star in the sky. While other stars orbit through space, canis minor stays put, just as the Victor dog loyally stays put at the record’s center. 

Stanza Ten

Gives rise to harmonies beyond belief,

A cast of stars . . . Is there in Victor’s heart

No honey for the vanquished? Art is art.

The life it asks of us is a dog’s life.

In stanza ten of ‘The Victor Dog,’ the speaker extends the allusion to canis minor, putting the Victor dog right in the center of the sky as he watches “a cast of stars” circle around him like bumps and divots on the grooves of a record. 

After an ellipsis, which creates a caesura, the speaker asks the poem’s listener in an apostrophe, “Is there in Victor’s heart / No honey for the vanquished?” 

Here the poet uses wordplay, placing the Victor dog as the victor or conqueror of his race. The other dogs that the speaker compared the Victor dog to, his forebears, are the vanquished. 

The fact that the Victor dog is the conqueror here touches on the theme of technology. Unlike the real dogs that barked, drooled, and slept by the hearth, the Victor dog is an artificial animal, static and obedient, ever spinning but never moving. While Victor is always there and reliable, he is not real, just as the music recorded on a vinyl record is simply a live performance recording. 

Here, then, the depiction or approximation of music is the conqueror over live music. Likewise, following the poet’s logic, an approximation or artificial copy of art is still art. 

The speaker closes with the statement,

Art is art.

The life it asks of us is a dog’s life.

This final idea creates two roles for the artist. 

The victor of art is the one who, like the Victor dog, observes without judgment, has little capacity for emotion, and is willing to be present in a moment and enjoy the art without understanding what it means. This understanding of art is technical and obedient to tradition, but it also progresses with technology. 

Those artists who are “vanquished” are those who reject progress, feel emotion before perceiving form, and do not obey the rules — think of the cubists and impressionists.

However, the speaker reminds the listener that whether the artist is a Victor or a loser, art is still art. 

Thus, even if the songs being played on the gramophone are recordings of other art, they are still their own unique form of art. Even if the Victor dog is a painting of a dog doing something that seems impossible, he’s still a dog. Even if dogs don’t understand music, they can still listen to it. 

And finally, even if the listener can never understand this poem to its deepest depths, it is still a poem.

FAQs

Who was ‘The Victor Dog’ Dedicated To?

‘The Victor Dog’ was dedicated to Elizabeth Bishop, a contemporary poet of James Merrill. Merrill and Bishop were friends who often shared their work with each other for critiques and advice. Many of their poems have similarities, as they both often wrote in the confessional style and often used traditional meters, such as iambic pentameter, which had gone out of fashion during the early 1900s.

What is the tone in ‘The Victor Dog’ by James Merrill?

The tone in ‘The Victor Dog’ by James Merrill is witty and humorous, while the mood is far different. Although the speaker, through intensive use of devices such as word play, puns, and allusions, may elicit a laugh in the listener, the mood is far more critical and slightly somber. This division between tone and mood is remarkable and highly admirable.

What is the meaning of ‘The Victor Dog?’

The meaning of the victor dog is complex, as it questions how people perceive art. However, it also investigates the meaning of art, using the symbols of a record and personifying the logo at the center, a dog, to show art from a new perspective. Ultimately, the speaker’s conclusion is that art is art, regardless of anything.

Who is the dog in ‘The Victor Dog?’

The dog in ‘The Victor Dog’ is a personified version of the RCA record company’s logo. The dog is from a painting titled His Master’s Voice, in which a dog looks curiously into the bell of a gramophone as if listening intently to the music. This image is still the logo of the RCA record company, and the company always has a real dog to serve as its mascot.


Similar Poetry

Get More with Poetry+

Upgrade to Poetry+ and get unlimited access to exclusive content, including:

Printable Poem Guides

Covering every poem on Poem Analysis (all 4,172 and counting).

Printable PDF Resources

Covering Poets, Rhyme Schemes, Movements, Meter, and more.

Ad-Free Experience

Enjoy poetry without adverts.

Talk with Poetry Experts

Comment about any poem and have experts answer.

Tooltip Definitions

Get tooltip definitions throughout Poem Analysis on 880 terms.

Premium Newsletter

Stay up to date with all things poetry.

Aimee LaFon Poetry Expert
About
Aimee LaFon has a BAS with honors in English and Classics, focusing her studies on the translation of Latin poetry, manuscript traditions, and the analysis of medieval and neoclassical poetry. She is a full-time writer and poet passionate about making knowledge accessible to everyone.

Join the Poetry Chatter and Comment

Exclusive to Poetry+ Members

Join Conversations

Share your thoughts and be part of engaging discussions.

Expert Replies

Get personalized insights from our Qualified Poetry Experts.

Connect with Poetry Lovers

Build connections with like-minded individuals.

Sign up to Poetry+
Subscribe
Notify of
0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
0
Got a question about the poem? Ask an expert.x

Discover and learn about the greatest poetry, straight to your inbox

Start Your Perfect Poetry Journey

The Best-Kept Secrets of Poetry

Discover and learn about the greatest poetry ever straight to your inbox

Share to...