In ‘The Power of the Dog’ Kipling discusses themes of joy and sorrow, as well as human/animal relationships. These relationships, specifically those between dogs and humans are the main subject of the poem. His speaker is emotionally compromised by his experience with these animals and is trying to express the sorrow he has felt by suggesting that humans stop keeping dogs entirely. This is not an honest argument, rather one made in order to emphasize the importance of these creatures in our lives.
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Summary of The Power of the Dog
The poem addresses the sad facts of a dog’s short life and how that life brings one so much joy and then so much sorrow. The death of a dog, the speaker says, brings too much sadness into one’s life. We should not, as humans who already suffer enough, seek out more sadness for ourselves. The stanzas take the reader through the parts of a dog’s life, concluding with a dog’s illness and death.
Structure of The Power of the Dog
‘The Power of the Dog’ by Rudyard Kipling is a five stanza poem that is separated into four sets of six lines and one final set of eleven lines. These lines all follow a simple rhyme scheme of AABBCCDD, and so on, changing end sounds from line to line and stanza to stanza. They are all also similar in length, ranging from nine syllables up to eleven.
Poetic Techniques in The Power of the Dog
Kipling makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘The Power of the Dog’. These include but are not limited to alliteration, enjambment, repetition, and caesura. The first of these, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same sound. For example, “Perfect passion” in line three of the second stanza and “With,” “whimper,” and “welcome” in line two of the fourth stanza.
Caesura occurs when a line is split in half, sometimes with punctuation, sometimes not. The use of punctuation in these moments creates a very intentional pause in the text. A reader should consider how the pause influences the rhythm of one’s reading and how it might come before an important turn or transition in the text. For example, the fifth line of the third stanza reads: “Then you will find—it’s your own affair”.
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 instance, the transition between the first line and the second of the first stanza and that between lines there and four of the third stanza.
The last line of each stanza provides the reader with a good example of repetition. In it, Kipling reuses the phrase “for a dog to tear”. This is an example of a refrain and of epistrophe, in which the last word or words of a line are repeated.
Analysis of The Power of the Dog
There is sorrow enough in the natural way
From men and women to fill our day;
And when we are certain of sorrow in store,
Why do we always arrange for more?
Brothers and Sisters, I bid you beware
Of giving your heart to a dog to tear.
In the first stanza of ‘The Power of the Dog,’ the speaker begins by outlining the sorrowful nature of our world. There is so much of it to go around, why, he wonders, “do we always arrange for more?” In this case, the more is coming in the form of a dog. When one allows a dog into their life they are willingly giving the dog their “heart…to tear”. The poet is not saying this because he hates dogs but because he loves them. He knows the joy they can bring their human companions as well as the sorrow when they’re gone.
Buy a pup and your money will buy
Love unflinching that cannot lie—
Perfect passion and worship fed
By a kick in the ribs or a pat on the head.
Nevertheless it is hardly fair
To risk your heart for a dog to tear.
The second stanza outlines more clearly why it is he thinks that dogs bring so much sorrow into human lives. He speaks about the process of buying a “pup” and what it will bring into one’s life. At first, there will be “perfect passion” and “worship” that cannot be dissuaded by kicks. It is fed equally by all attention one pays a dog. Their loyalty is unwavering.
But, the last two lines add this is no reason to risk one’s heart for a dog.
When the fourteen years which Nature permits
Are closing in asthma, or tumour, or fits,
And the vet’s unspoken prescription runs
To lethal chambers or loaded guns,
Then you will find—it’s your own affair—
But… you’ve given your heart to a dog to tear.
The third stanza of ‘The power of a Dog’ brings the reader to the passing of a beloved pet. When they are around “fourteen years old” they pass on. That is all that nature will permit. This is an example of personification. He capitalizes “Nature” to make it seem as though it has more agency than it does. It chooses, as if sentient, the period in which a dog can live.
It could be from anything, peaceful or less so. Often, the prescription for one’s ill dog is death. The vet usually leads there and then it is up to you to decide what to do about your animal’s life. In the last line, he repeats the refrain again.
When the body that lived at your single will,
With its whimper of welcome, is stilled (how still!).
When the spirit that answered your every mood
Is gone—wherever it goes—for good,
You will discover how much you care,
And will give your heart to a dog to tear.
In the last six-line stanza of ‘The Power of the Dog,’ the speaker takes the reader to directly after one’s dog’s death. It is the time when the body is still and the “whimper of welcome,” a great example of alteration, is “stilled”. A reader should take note of the phrase “how still!” In the second line. It is added in as an example of an aside. The speaker is talking to himself, and to the reader, emphasizing the pain of this part of a dog’s existence.
The fourth line also provides the reader with a good example of alliteration with the repetition of the words “gone,” “goes,” and “good”. The rhythm of this pattern emphasizes the phases of a dog’s life. It is there, then it is gone.
We’ve sorrow enough in the natural way,
When it comes to burying Christian clay.
Our loves are not given, but only lent,
At compound interest of cent per cent.
Though it is not always the case, I believe,
That the longer we’ve kept ’em, the more do we grieve:
For, when debts are payable, right or wrong,
A short-time loan is as bad as a long—
So why in—Heaven (before we are there)
Should we give our hearts to a dog to tear?
The final stanza of ‘The Power of the Dog’ is longer than the previous four. In it, the speaker reiterates his belief that “We,” the human race, have enough sorrow “in the natural way” without dogs. In the next lines, he uses an extended metaphor comparing love to money and loans that are “lent” for a period of time. He relates this to interest and how over time more money, and therefore more love, should accumulate.
But, the next lines add, this is not always the case. The longer the love exists does not make it stronger. Dogs only live for around 14 years but the love we bear them is much greater.