‘Epitaph to a Dog,’ also known as ‘Inscription on the Monument to a Newfoundland Dog’ was written in 1808 after his dog Boatswain had died of rabies. Byron’s love for the dog is well documented and demonstrated by the size of his tomb at Newstead Abbey. The poet taps into themes of human nature, the soul, and the afterlife.
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Summary of Epitaph to a Dog
The poem compares the demeanors, levels of courage, and fates of men and dogs. Byron mourns the fact that dogs are “Unhonour’d” and “unnotic’d” even though they have so much worth. They are even “Deny’d in heaven”. The poem concludes with Byron referring to his lost dog as the only friend he ever knew.
Structure of Epitaph to a Dog
‘Epitaph to a Dog’ by Lord Byron is a twenty-six line poem that is contained within a single stanza of text. The lines follow a rhyme scheme of AABBCC, and so on, changing end sounds as the poet saw fit.
A reader should also take the time to consider the epigraph of this poem as well. An epigraph, in literature, is a phrase, quote, or any short piece of text that comes before a longer document (a poem, story, book, etc.). Sometimes the epigraph is set out as a structure preface to the text that follows it. In other instances it appears as more of a summary or a connector to other works, reminding the reader of the wider literary implications.
In this case, the epigraph works as a long introduction to the poem. It was not written by Byron but by a friend, John Hobhouse.
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.
In these lines, Hobhouse addresses the dog’s death in the form of a formal epitaph. These lines read as an inscription on a tomb. He touts the dog’s loyalty, strength, humility, and courage.
Poetic Techniques in Epitaph to a Dog
Byron makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Epitaph to a Dog’.These include but are not limited to alliteration, enjambment, and metaphor. The first, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “firmest friend,” “first,” and “foremost” in lines seven and eight. Or, “disgust,” “Degraded,” and “dust” in lines seventeen and eighteen.
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 five and six.
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. For example, in the eighteenth line the poet says that humankind is a “Degraded mass of animated dust”. This phrase is used to show the true extent of the speaker’s disappointment and rage with the different ways that humans and animals are regard after death.
Analysis of Epitaph to a Dog
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.
In the first lines of ‘Epitaph to a Dog,’ the speaker begins by discussing what happens when “some proud Son of Man” dies and is recognized. Monuments are created in his honor and everyone becomes exhausted by the “pomp of woe”. All those who have heard of this person mourn their loss. There are stories of their deeds and character traits and in the end, a tomb is erected. They speak not of “What he was, but what he should have been”. There is an element of untruth to the whole affair. Byron uses these lines to create a contrast with what happens after a “poor Dog” dies.
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:
Byron delves into the main subject of his poem in the next lines, what happens after a dog dies, and what he thinks should happen. When a dog dies, a creature that is “the firmest friend” in life they go “unhonour’d”. No one notices or no cares to notice when they’re gone even though they are all that the “proud Son of Man” is said to be. Dogs labour and fight for their masters. They have honest hearts that are far superior to those of most men.
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!
Byron exclaims over the difference between the two. Man is nothing, man is a “vain insect” in the face of the honest goodness of dogs. He might believe he is the “sole” beneficiary of heaven but he is the same as all other creatures, a “tenant of an hour”.
Anyone, the speaker says, who is well acquainted with humankind would “quit” man with “disgust”. They are a “degraded mass of animated dust”. The consistent rhyme in these lines paired with the outraged language is powerful. The tone is indignant and the mood is angry and mournful.
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.
In the final lines of ‘Epitaph to a Dog,’ the speaker says that man’s emotions, friendships, and choices are all fake. The human tongue is “hypocrisy” and the heart of man is “deceit”. There is nothing good or Wirth recognizing in humanity when set up against the heart of a dog. It is only because of the “name” of humankind that they are recognized so.
Throughout his life, the poet concludes, he knew only one true friend. Here, he says, “he lies”. This is, of course, a reference to Byron’s dog Boatswain to dedication to whom this entire poem was written. He marks his friend’s remains with a stone and mourns his loss, wishing that creatures such as he would be better recognized.