In ‘Dog’ Ferlinghetti explores themes of spirituality/religion and the free will of all living things. He also alludes to a larger investigation into the meaning of life and the existence or nonexistence of truth.
The dog starts out as a simple vehicle through which a reader can see the world through a new lens but as the poem progresses he becomes more important. His thoughts are closer to our perspective than the first lines allowed one to understand. Ferlinghetti gets to the heart of some of the most important issues discussed throughout the history of human civilization.
Summary of Dog
This poem takes the reader through a series of images that are described through a dog’s eyes. He sees lamp posts as trees with moons and ascribes importance and unimportance to different things that a human might. He’s willing to eat the cow or the policeman but would prefer the former. The dog follows his nose, understands the things that are larger than himself and smaller. He knows reality and sees it as his existence allows him to.
In the middle of the poem, Ferlinghetti introduces politics and a discussion about free will through reference to a specific congressman that the dog is disturbed by. He isn’t afraid of this person, as he knows the truth about his own nature, but he is bothered.
Towards the end of the poem the language becomes more complex, the margins disappear and Ferlinghetti introduces themes of free will, God, religion, politics, and the meaning of life.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure of Dog
‘Dog’ by Lawrence Ferlinghetti is a seventy-four line poem that is contained within one stanza of text. Upon glancing at the text of this poem it is immediately evident that Ferlinghetti chose to make use of an unusual line structure. The first forty-seven lines are traditionally arranged, indented, and spaced as one would expect. But, when one gets to the forty-eighth line, things change. The spacing between the lines varies, as do the distance from the margin each one is indented.
In regards to a rhyme scheme or metrical pattern, there is neither. This poem is written in free verse but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t examples of rhyme, rhythm, or other poetic techniques in the poem.
Poetic Techniques in Dog
Ferlinghetti makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Dog.’ These include but are not limited to anaphora, personification, and repetition. Anaphora the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. This technique is often used to create emphasis. A list of phrases, items, or actions may be created through its implementation. For example, “and” in lines two and three and “and” in lines thirty-eight through forty”.
Repetition is the use and reuse of a specific technique, word, tone or phrase within a poem. It is seen through the refrain that appears several times in the poem, “The dog trots freely in the street”. There are a few alterations to this basic line, with “thru” substituted for “in”.
Personification occurs when a poet imbues a non-human creature or object with human characteristics. Throughout this poem, this dog and his opinions about the world become more and more human. They start out as charming and naively dog-like but towards the end, they become more philosophical and he makes decisions based on his own free will and an agency that is normally only assigned to humans.
Imagery is one of the most important techniques that a poet can focus on in any poem. In this case, the images are complex. “Imagery” as a literary device refers to the elements of a poem that engage a reader’s senses. Traditionally, the word “image” is related to visual sights, things that a reader can imagine seeing, but the imagery is much more than that. It is something one can sense with their five senses. In ‘Dog’ Ferlinghetti creates images from a dog’s perspective but in a way that allows a human reader to connect with and understand them.
Analysis of Dog
The dog trots freely in the street
and sees reality
and the things he sees
are smaller than himself
In the first lines of ‘Dog,’ the speaker begins by describing a dog’s reality. This reality is no different from a human’s. He sees “reality” and things that are “bigger than himself”. He sees his own reality just as people do. There are differences though in how he perceives these things. We see a streetlight and know its purpose but a dog sees “Moons on trees”.
The line “dog trots freely thru the street” is repeated in the ninth line and the speaker continues to catalog everything the animal sees. There are things that are bigger but also things that are “smaller than himself”.
Fish on newsprint
Ants in holes
cats and cigars
poolrooms and policemen
The small things the dog sees around him are “Fish on newsprint” and “Ants in holes”. These are simple things, made more important from the dog’s perspective. There is an example of alliteration in the fourteenth line with “Chickens in Chinatown”. For the third time, a reader encounters a repetition of the refrain “The dog trots freely in the street”. After this, the speaker turns to the dog’s sense of smell. He sees his reality, big and small, he also smells things that are “something like himself”.
The dog recognizes himself in others and in what others left behind. The refrain appears again, this time followed by the alliterative phrase “past puddles”. The double “p” helps a reader envision the sound the dog’s feet would make patting along the sidewalk. There is another example with “poolrooms and policemen”. He recognizes these things but does not stop to give them any great consideration.
He doesn’t hate cops
He merely has no use for them
and he goes past them
And he goes past the Romeo Ravioli Factory
and past Coit’s Tower
and past Congressman Doyle
The dog notes many things that don’t matter to him, such as cops, and a few things that do. He notices the cows that are “hung up whole / in front of the San Francisco Meat Market”. In a blasé and direct way, he considers how he’d eat either the policeman or the cow but the cow is preferable.
There is the introduction of the industry in the next lines with a ravioli factory and “Coit’s Tower”. The latter is memorable to an earthquake and fire that occurred in San Francisco. This gives the reader an extra piece of information about the setting that may or may not influence one’s opinion of it. The tower has no meaning to him, it’s another building/structure to pass by.
There is also a reference to “Congressman Doyle”. This man, who is not elaborated on in the poem, is not frightening to the dog. He is hapless and doesn’t really merit consideration. In the next lines, he states that he’s not “afraid” of the man but what he hears about him isn’t good. This is a great example of how personification can make an animal’s perspective seem more like a human’s.
He’s afraid of Coit’s Tower
but he’s not afraid of Congressman Doyle
although what he hears is very discouraging
Congressman Doyle is just another
Ferlinghetti uses repetition in the next lines to emphasize the dog’s perspective and how it is becoming more human. He is expressing his own opinion about Congressman Doyle whose actions he finds “very depressing” and “very absurd”. No matter what this congressman does, he can’t muzzle the dog. He refuses to be controlled. To him, the man is “just another / fire hydrant”. The congressman that Ferlinghetti is alluding to is unimportant in the larger scheme of things. From the text, a reader can imply that he would’ve been opposed to the dog’s sense of self and freedom.
The dog trots freely in the street
and has his own dog’s life to live
and to think about
with a real tale to tell
and a real tail to tell it with
a real live
The refrain comes back into the poem again in line thirty-seven. The speaker notes the dog’s actions and uses a technique known as anaphora to describe them. The word “And” is used three times in a row at the beginning of lines thirty-eight through forty. Ferlinghetti is emphasizing the life that the dog has to live, which is his own. He has the ability to touch and taste everything he wants to without worrying about rules or what someone says is right or wrong.
Repetition is used again in this section of lines. The phrase “real realist” is followed by another three uses of the word “real”. Ferlinghetti also experiments with the word “tale,” using it to refer to the dog’s tail and to the story that his tail has to tell.
engaged in real
for Victor Records
His Master’s Voice
The next two sections of the poem are where the standards margins and indentations disappear. They were arranged in this way, perhaps, to mimic the freedom the dog knows is his as well as the movements of his body. His tail moves back and forth as does his snout as he smells and tastes everything he wants to.
The dog’s whose actions had conveyed political opinions is now very clearly expressing those opinions. The speaker states outright that he has “something to say” several times and that he’s engaged in real “free enterprise”. He has “something to say / about reality / and how to see it”. This connects to hearing and to the image of the dog on the label for Victor Records. The image which since it was first produced has become famous, depicts a dog looking into a Victorla (a word the company trademarked) wondering where his master’s voice is coming from. The words “His Master’s Voice” are capitalized in this line in order to directly refer to this ad.
like a living questionmark
just about to spout forth
some Victorious answer
In the last ten lines, the speaker continues to describe the dog his confusion about his master’s voice, the source of commands and instructions. He is a “living questionmark” looking into the “great gramophone / of puzzling existence”. He is seeking out the source of the voice, an allusion to God and humankind’s continual quest to find “some…answer / to everything”. The poem concludes after connecting the poem back to religion, spirituality, and a search for truth and meaning.