20-Year-Old Lord Byron’s Moving Elegy for His Beloved Dog
By Maria Popova
“I am because my little dog knows me,” Gertrude Stein wrote. Who hasn’t found in the eyes of a beloved dog the most generous mirror, an infinity of love, and that soulful look that says, “If I could I would bite every sorrow until it fled”? And who hasn’t known the sorrow — the biting, savaging sorrow — of seeing that look fade to vacant black?
Nearly two centuries before John Updike composed his heartbreaking poem about the death of a beloved dog, another poet — George Gordon Byron, better known as Lord Byron (January 22, 1788–April 19, 1824) — bewailed another dog in verses that endure as the most heartfelt this Romantic bad boy ever composed.
At age fifteen, Byron acquired a Newfoundland puppy named Boatswain. Later a man of towering talent, reckless passions, and limited sympathies — unlike his equally gifted Romantic peer John Keats, a devoted lover of boundless compassion for humanity — Byron formed a bond of uncharacteristic loyalty and pure-hearted affection with his dog. (Qualities, to be sure, characteristic of the human-canine bond in general, but uncharacteristic of Byron’s human attachments.) So touching was his love for Boatswain that Elizabeth Bridget Pigot — a neighbor who took the teenage Byron under her wing like an elder sister and encouraged his literary ambitions — immortalized it in a lyrical hand-sewn watercolor book she titled The Wonderful History of Lord Byron and His Dog.
Just as the twenty-year-old aspiring poet was completing his studies at Trinity College after years as a middling and distracted student, Boatswain contracted rabies. Desperate to nurse him back to life and unaware of the deadly course of the disease — the rabies vaccine was still a century away — Byron fed his beloved dog with bare hands and tenderly wiped the frothing drool from his muzzle during seizures.
That November, during one such seizure, Boatswain died in his arms. Byron was devastated. “He expired in a state of madness, after suffering much,” the poet wrote to a friend, “yet retained all the gentleness of his nature to the last, never attempting to do the least injury to any one near him.” And then, inconsolable, he added: “I have lost every thing except Old Murray” — his publisher.
Byron coped the best way an artist copes. He composed a stirring elegy to be carved onto the headstone above Boatswain’s grave, which today stands at Newstead Abbey larger than the poet’s own. Overlooked in his lifetime and included two centuries later in Rod Preece’s excellent anthology Awe for the Tiger, Love for the Lamb: A Chronicle of Sensibility to Animals (public library), it foreshadows the superior regard Byron would always reserve for dogs over humans, later writing in his celebrated narrative poem Don Juan:
dogs! or Men! (for I flatter you in saying
That ye are dogs — your betters far)
More than that, the epitaph for Boatswain radiates the universals of the human-canine bond: the way we tend to see the best of ourselves in our dogs, the sweetness of adoration and loyalty so deep, the all-coloring sorrow of losing so guileless and unconditionally loving a companion.
EPITAPH TO A DOG
Near this spot
Are deposited the Remains
Who possessed Beauty
Strength without Insolence,
Courage without Ferocity,
And all the Virtues of Man
Without his Vices.
The Price, 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 at Newfoundland,
And died in Newstead Abbey,
Nov. 18th, 1808.
When some proud son of man returns to earth,
Unknown by glory, but upheld by birth,
The sculptor’s art exhausts the pomp of woe,
And stories urns record that rests below.
When all is done, upon the tomb is seen,
Not what he was, but what he should have been.
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 labors, fights, lives, breathes for him alone,
Unhonored falls, unnoticed all his worth,
Denied in heaven the soul he held on earth —
While man, vain insect! hopes to be forgiven,
And claims himself a sole exclusive heaven.
Oh man! thou feeble tenant of an hour,
Debased by slavery, or corrupt by power —
Who knows thee well must quit thee with disgust,
Degraded mass of animated dust!
Thy love is lust, thy friendship all a cheat,
Thy smiles hypocrisy, thy words deceit!
By nature vile, ennoble but by name,
Each kindred brute might bid thee blush for shame.
Ye, who perchance behold 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.
Couple with E.B. White’s playful and poignant obituary for his beloved dog Daisy, then revisit artist Maria Kalman’s illustrated love letter to our canine companions and cognitive scientist Alexandra Horowitz on what dogs teach us about accessing the hidden layers of reality.
Published August 18, 2019