‘Epitaph on a Hare’ by William Cowper is an eight stanza Sapphic poem. It is separated into sets of four lines each of which follows a structured and consistent rhyme scheme. The lines conform to the pattern of abab cdcd efef..and so on, throughout all eight sets of lines.
A reader should also take note of the fact that every other line, corresponding with those which rhyme, is indented in. This technique has been utilized in an effort to create a visual connection between the rhyming lines. It also forces a reader to move their eyes differently between the lines, adding an element of interest.
It is also important to note that this poem is an epitaph. This means that it was written in memory of someone, human or non-human, who died.
The poem begins with the speaker describing his interactions with Tiney the hare. He is not always pleasant, sometimes biting his owner, but the speaker loves him all the same. The speaker describes the food eaten by the hare, and the rooms and enclosures he lives in. He has only the best materials around him.
In the second half of the poem the speaker states that when the hare had passed away he buried him in a box under the walnut tree. It is here, in the shade, that he rests until another life begins.
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Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
Though duly from my hand he took
His pittance every night,
He did it with a jealous look,
And, when he could, would bite.
In the first stanza of ‘Epitaph on a Hare’ the speaker begins by stating that some creature, as yet unknown to the reader, ate from his hand “every night.” Although there is no mention of the exact species in the text, one should easily come to the conclusion that it is a hare from context clues and the title.
The first lines state that the hare, which seems to be under the speaker’s care, would each night take “His pittance,” or his nightly allowance of food, from the speaker’s hand. He competed for this act “with a jealous look.” The hare seems to know that the speaker has access to something he never will and bears him ill will. This is backed up by the next phrase in which the speaker says the hare would often bite him.
His diet was of wheaten bread,
And milk, and oats, and straw,
Thistles, or lettuces instead,
With sand to scour his maw.
In the second set of lines, the speaker describes what the hare’s “nightly pittance” actually was. He lists off the various foods that he fed the animal but does not discuss how they were received. There was “wheaten bread” fed to the hare, along with “milk…oats, and straw.” All of these items came alongside, “Thistles,” or rather “lettuces” on occasion.
On twigs of hawthorn he regaled,
On pippins’ russet peel;
And, when his juicy salads failed,
Sliced carrot pleased him well.
In the third quatrain of ‘Epitaph on a Hare,’ the speaker describes the enclosure that the hare resided in. The phrases he uses are quite elaborate. He speaks of the hare “regal[ing]” on a bed of “hawthorn” twigs and apple peels. The hare lives only on the finest of materials.
A reader might be wondering at this point how this animal came to be the speaker’s possession. Was it a gift or purchase? Perhaps it wandered into the speaker’s stewardship? It is never made clear, but is a curious and endearing missing element from the narrative.
The final lines of this section describe how the speaker would give the hare “Sliced carrots” if for some reason he did not want to eat another “juicy salad.” It is clear that the hare’s caretaker worried about how the animal was doing, whether it was eating, and how it would prefer to live.
A Turkey carpet was his lawn,
Whereon he loved to bound,
To skip and gambol like a fawn,
And swing his rump around.
In the next stanza, the speaker returns to the description of the rabbit’s enclosure. It is unclear how large this space is but there are a number of items within it. The floor is covered in a “Turkey carpet.” It was on this surface that the rabbit loved to frolic and “bound” like a fawn. The animal jumped around, happy with his surroundings.
From the four lines of this quatrain, a reader can see how much the speaker cares for the animal. He clearly gets joy from watching him run and takes pleasure from his happiness.
His frisking was at evening hours,
For then he lost his fear;
But most before approaching showers,
Or when a storm drew near.
So far the reader has received two conflicting views of the hare. In one moment it is trying to bite its owner, but in another, it appears to be blissfully happy such as in the later parts of a day. It races around its enclosure in the “evening hours.” It as this time of day that he “lost his fear” and no longer felt so hostile towards his owner.
In the next two lines, the speaker says that the bounding and racing that the hare participated in was never as elaborate as that which came before an “approaching storm.” He seemed to know when one was on its way and reacted accordingly.
Eight years and five round rolling moons
He thus saw steal away,
Dozing out all his idle noons,
And every night at play.
In the next stanza, the speaker removes himself from the detailed description of the hare’s life and states that the animal lived with him for “Eight years and five round rolling moon.”
It was over this brief period of time that the speaker witnesses the boisterous playing and joyful bounding that the hare took part in. There were also midday naps and full nights “at play.” This is an overview of the hare’s entire life. It was a simple one, but it nonetheless pleased the speaker.
I kept him for his humour’s sake,
For he would oft beguile
My heart of thoughts that made it ache,
And force me to a smile.
In the next set of four lines the speaker describes why it was he kept the hare. It brought him endless joy and always improved the speaker’s “humour.” The hare was a bon upon his life.
He often “beguile[d]” the speaker’s heart, making it “ache,” and forcing him to a smile. This is a simple but powerful love between owner and pet.
But now, beneath this walnut-shade
He finds his long, last home,
And waits inn snug concealment laid,
Till gentler puss shall come.
In the second to last stanza of ‘Epitaph on a Hare,’ the speaker reminds the reader that the poem is an epitaph. He is mourning the loss of this animal. The narrator turns to the hare’s grave and “last home.” It is beneath the walnut tree in the shade.
He waits there beneath the soil for a better life to come. Perhaps one alongside his owner in the afterlife.
He, still more aged, feels the shocks
From which no care can save,
And, partner once of Tiney’s box,
Must soon partake his grave.
In the final lines, the speaker describes how the hare, even in its old age and death, was tuned in to the happenings of the world in a way the speaker cannot understand. In these final lines, the speaker reveals the name of the hare, “Tiney.” He has long since passed away but the speaker cannot stop thinking about his box in his grave.
This conclusion leads one to consider their own death and how they might be remembered for better and worse after they are gone. The speaker seems to consider this himself in the final lines.