Poems About Humanity's Best Friend


Edited by Duncan Wu

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From Homer to Wordsworth to Gwendolyn Brooks, learn about history’s greatest writers and the furry best friends that inspired them.

Dogs are at once among the most ordinary of animals and the most beloved by mankind. But what we may not realize is that for as long as we have loved dogs, our poets have been seriously engaged with them as well.

In this collection, English professor Duncan Wu digs into the wealth of poetry about our furry friends to show how varied and intimate our relationships with them have been over the centuries. Homer recounts how Odysseus’s loyal dog recognizes his master even after his long absence. Thomas Hardy wrote poems from a pooch’s perspective, conveying a powerful sense of dogs’ innocent and trusting nature. And a multitude of writers, from Lord Byron to Emily Dickinson, have turned to poetry to mourn the loss of beloved dogs. Rich and inviting, Dog-eared is a spellbinding collection of poetic musings about humans and dogs and what they mean to each other.



STANDARDS AND CONVENTIONS concerning punctuation, capitalization, and other incidentals of the text have altered significantly over the centuries. In the case of poems edited from early printed or manuscript sources, I have seen fit to punctuate, or repunctuate, in a manner that preserves the meaning and integrity of the original while making the poem accessible to the modern reader.


(750 BC–650 BC)

Translated by George Chapman

VERY LITTLE IS known about Homer—we do not even know whether he was one person or several. And if he was blind, as is often claimed, someone must have helped him with the task of writing. One thing we do know: he (or they) had a faultless sense of drama, and that was never clearer than in this extract from the Odyssey, Book 17, well after the end of the Trojan War. For this extract I have turned to one of the most sensitive of Homer’s English translators, the Elizabethan poet George Chapman (1559–1634), whose 1616 rendering so delighted John Keats and inspired his sonnet “On first reading Chapman’s Homer.”

After years of struggle, Ulysses has arrived home to find the “suitors” partying every night at his expense—all 108 of whom are trying to persuade his wife, Penelope, to marry them. Disguised as a beggar, he is accompanied by Eumaeus, a swineherd who is one of his slaves. Eumaeus still does not know Ulysses’s identity, but Argus, the dog he reared from puppyhood, knows Ulysses immediately, greets him, wagging his tail for the last time. The earliest dog-poem in this anthology thus tells the tale of canine affection and fidelity.

Odyssey, Book 17 (extract)

when in the yard there lay

A dog called Argus which, before his way

Assumed for Ilion, Ulysses bred1

Yet stood his pleasure then in little stead

(As being too young) but growing to his grace2

Young men made choice of him for every chase;3

Or of their wild goats, of their hares or harts.

But his King gone, and he now past his parts,4

Lay all abjectly on the stables store,5

Before the ox-stall, and mules’ stable-door,

To keep the clothes, cast from the peasants’ hands,

While they laid compost on Ulysses’ lands:

The dog, with ticks (unlooked-to) overgrown.6

But by this dog no sooner seen but known

Was wise Ulysses, who new-entered there:

Up went his dog’s laid ears and (coming near)

Up he himself rose, fawned, and wagged his stern,7

Couched close his ears, and lay so—nor discern8

Could evermore his dear-loved Lord again.

Ulysses saw it, nor had power to abstain

From shedding tears, which (far-off seeing his swain)

He dried from his sight clean; to whom he thus

His grief dissembled: “’Tis miraculous9

That such a dog as this should have his lair

On such a dunghill, for his form is fair.

And yet I know not if there were in him

Good pace or parts, for all his goodly limn.10

Or he lived empty of those inward things,

As are those trencher-beagles, tending kings,11

Whom for their pleasures or their glories ache,

Or fashion, they into their favours take.”

“This dog,” said he, “was servant to one dead

A huge time since. But if he bore his head

(For form and quality) of such a height,

As when Ulysses (bound for the Ilion fight,

Or quickly after) left him, your rapt eyes12

Would then admire to see him use his thighs13

In strength and swiftness. He would nothing fly14

Nor anything let escape. If once his eye

Seized any wild beast, he knew straight his scent;15

Go where he would, away with him he went.

Nor was there ever any savage stood16

Amongst the thickets of the deepest wood

Long time before him, but he pulled him down;

As well by that true hunting to be shown

In such vast coverts as for speed of pace

In any open lawn; for in deep chase,17

He was a passing wise and well-nosed hound.

And yet is all this good in him uncrowned

With any grace here now, nor he more fed18

Then any errant cur. His King is dead19

Far from his country, and his servants are

So negligent, they lend his hound no care.

Where masters rule not, but let men alone

You never there see honest service done.

That man’s half virtue, Jove takes quite away,

That once is sunburned with the servile day.”20

This said, he entered the well-builded towers,

Up bearing right upon the glorious wooers

And left poor Argus dead. His lord’s first sight

Since that time twenty years bereft his light.21


1. bred trained

2. grace, i.e., fine hunting ability

3. chase hunt

4. past his parts, i.e., aged, incapable

5. store, i.e., of animal feces

6. unlooked-to untreated; overgrown covered

7. stern tail

8. Couched close lowered

9. dissembled disguised

10. pace or parts good abilities; limn appearance

11. trencher-beagles pet dogs

12. rapt entranced

13. admire be struck with admiration

14. fly flee

15. straight instantly

16. savage wild beast

17. lawn glade

18. grace recognition

19. errant cur badly behaved, worthless dog

20. That man’s half-virtue… servile day, i.e., the experience of being someone’s slave strips a man of even the little virtue he may possess.

21. bereft his light, i.e., led to his sudden death


(43 BC–AD 17)

Translated by Arthur Golding

PUBLIUS OVIDIUS NASO was a Roman poet born to a well-to-do family in 43 BC, a year after Julius Caesar’s assassination. He wanted to be a poet from an early age and composed what was to be his greatest work, the fifteen-book Metamorphoses, between 2 BC and AD 8. I have included the story of the hunter Actaeon and his dogs, who have always been the stars of this episode. The tale is best known to British readers in the translation of the Elizabethan writer, Arthur Golding (1535–1606). Shakespeare was an enthusiastic reader of Golding, and the speeches from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (4. 1) below (here) are certainly influenced by the lines included here.

Actaeon accidentally stumbles across the goddess Diana, bathing naked in the woods with her ladies-in-waiting. Although he is as much a victim of circumstance as they are, he is promptly cursed by Diana to be turned into a deer and hunted down and torn to shreds by his own dogs. Later translators such as Ted Hughes have chosen to emphasize Actaeon’s innocence. Golding instead seems fixated by the brutal injustice meted out to Actaeon, naming and counting off each hunting-dog and describing with relish his slow, unpleasant death with a relish embodied in the painful description of his slow, unpleasant death from the dogs’ “greedy teeth and griping paws.” The extract below begins as Diana throws water over Actaeon, turning him into a hart.

Metamorphoses, Book 3 (extract)

So raught the water in her hands, and for to wreak the spite,1

Besprinkled all the head and face of the unlucky Knight,

And thus forespake the heavy lot that should upon him light.2

“Now make thy vaunt among thy mates, thou saw’st Diana bare.3

Tell if thou can, I give thee leave, tell hardly, do not spare.”4

This done, she makes no further threats, but by and by doth spread

A pair of lively old hart’s horns upon his sprinkled head.

She sharps his ears, she makes his neck both slender, long and lank.

She turns his fingers into feet, his arms to spindle-shank.5

She wraps him in a hairy hide beset with speckled spots,

And planteth in him fearfulness—and so away he trots,

Full greatly wondering to himself what made him in that case6

To be so wight and swift of foot. But when he saw his face7

And horned temples in the brook, he would have cried “Alas!”,

But as for then no kind of speech out of his lips could pass.

He sight and brayed—for that was then the speech that did remain,8

And down the eyes that were not his, his bitter tears did rain.

No part remained (save his mind) of that he erst had been.9

What should he do? Turn home again to Cadmus and the Queen?

Or hide himself among the woods? Of this he was afraid,

And of the tother ill ashamed.

While doubting thus he stayed:

His hounds espied him where he was, and Blackfoot first of all,

And Stalker special good of scent began aloud to call.

This latter was a hound of Crete, the other was of Sparta.

Then all the kennel fell in round, and every for his part

Did follow freshly in the chase more swifter than the wind—

Spy, Eateal, Scalecliff, three good hounds come all of Arcas’ kind;10

Strong Kilbuck, currish Savage, Spring, and Hunter fresh of smell,

And Lightfoot who to lead a chase did bear away the bell;11

Fierce Woodman hurt not long ago in hunting of a boar,

And Shepherd wont to follow sheep and neat to field afore;12

And Laund, a fell and eager bitch that had a wolf to sire;13

Another brach called Greedigut with two her puppies by her;14

And Ladon gaunt as any greyhound, a hound in Sicyon bred;

Blab, Fleetwood, Patch whose necked skin with sundry spots was spread;

Wight, Bowman, Royster (beauty fair and white as winter’s snow),

And Tawny full of dusky hairs that over all did grow;

With lusty Ruffler passing all the residue there in strength,15

And Tempest best of footmanship in holding out at length;

And Cole, and Swift, and little Wolf, as wight as any other,16

Accompanied with a Cyprian hound that was his native brother,17

And Snatch amid whose forehead stood a star as white as snow,

The residue being all as black and slick as any crow;

And shaggy Rug with other twain that had a sire of Crete

And dam of Sparta, one of them called Jollyboy, a great

And large-flewd hound, the other Chorle who ever gnoorring went,18

And Ringwood with a shyrle loud mouth the which he freely spent,19

With divers mo whose names to tell it were but loss of time.20

This fellows over hill and dale in hope of pray do climb,21

Through thick and thin and craggy cliffs where was no way to go,

He flies through grounds where oftentimes he chaséd had ere tho,22

Even from his own folk is he fain (alas!) to flee away;

He strained oftentimes to speak, and was about to say

“I am Actaeon: know your Lord and Master, sirs, I pray!”

But use of words and speech did want to utter forth his mind.23

Their cry did ring through all the wood redoubled with the wind.

First Slo did pinch him by the haunch, and next came Kildeer in,

And Hylbred fastened on his shoulder, bit him through the skin.

These came forth later than the rest, but coasting thwart a hill,24

They did gaincope him as he came, and held their Master still,25

Until that all the rest came in, and fastened on him too.

No part of him was free from wound; he could none other do

But sigh, and in the shape of hart with voice as harts are wont,

(For voice of man was none now left to help him at the brunt)26

By braying show his secret grief among the mountains high,

And kneeling sadly on his knees with dreary tears in eye,

As one by humbling of himself that mercy seemed to crave,

With piteous look instead of hands his head about to wave.

Not knowing that it was their Lord, the huntsmen cheer their hounds

With wonted noise and for Actaeon look about the grounds;

They “halloo!” who could loudest cry, still calling him by name,

As though he were not there, and much his absence they do blame

In that he came not to the fall, but slacked to see the game.27

As often as they named him he sadly shook his head,

And fain he would have been away thence in some other stead;

But there he was. And well he could have found in heart to see

His dogs’ fell deeds, so that to feel in place he had not been.

They hem him in on every side, and in the shape of Stag,

With greedy teeth and griping paws their Lord in pieces drag.


1. raught held

2. forespake predicted; lot fate

3. vaunt boast

4. hardly loudly

5. spindle-shank a long, slender leg

6. case instance

7. wight strong

8. sight saw

9. save except; erst formerly

10. come related

11. bear away the bell beat the others

12. neat cows

13. fell fierce

14. brach bitch

15. passing exceeding

16. wight energetic

17. Cyrian from Cyprus

18. flewd lipped; gnoorring snarling

19. shyrle rough

20. mo more

21. pray prayer

22. ere tho before then

23. want lack

24. coasting crossing

25. gaincope intercept

26. brunt attack (of the dogs)

27. Slacked neglected


(ca. 1st century AD)

Translated by Gideon Nisbet

CRINAGORAS WAS BORN on the Greek island of Mytilene, capital city and port on the island of Lesbos, and was sent as Greek ambassador to Rome, where he wrote the epigrams that are now part of the Greek Anthology.

Dog Avoidance Tactics

“Each to his trade”: beneath the Alpine peaks

The shaggy bandits with their spiky hair

Pursue their larceny and still avoid

The dogs of their pursuers, by this means:

They take a kidney, rub it on themselves

Till every bit of fat is on their skin.

Its pungent odour fools the keen-nosed hounds.

You savants of Liguria, inclined

More to devise the wicked than the good.


(between AD 38/41 and ca. 104)

Translated by Duncan Wu

MARTIAL WAS A Spanish-born inhabitant of Rome and probably the greatest (and rudest) of the Roman satirists. His poetry is strongly influenced by that of Catullus (ca. 84–54 BC) and pokes fun at the social lives of well-to-do Romans, including their attitudes toward dogs. The epigram about Issa is the first poem in this book that is concerned with a lapdog rather than a hunting-dog. Publius, Roman governor of Malta, was Issa’s proud owner.

Epigram 1.83

Your cute little pup licks your face and lips;

Oh what a surprise!—he loves to eat shit.

Epigram 1.109

Issa is a bigger scamp than Catullus’s

Sparrow—purer than the peck of a dove;

More seductive than any louche slave-girl;

More precious than strings of Indian pearls:

Issa, darling lapdog of Publius.

He hears her speak in her croons; she knows when

He’s happy or sad; she slumbers, her snout

On his neck, so soundly he can’t hear her

Breathing. When her bladder’s full to bursting,

She won’t let a drop touch the sheets, instead

Nudging him with her pawpad so that, when

Roused, he sets her on the floor, and lifts her

Back on the bed when she’s done. Innately

Chaste and modest, she’s a stranger to love,

No mate being equal to the tender

Young bitch. Lest the Grim Reaper remove all

Trace of her, Publius paints her portrait

Which is more lifelike than the dog herself:

Place them side by side, and you would suppose

Both the real thing or both works of art.


(d. 709/710)

Translated by Duncan Wu

THE FIRST CHRISTIAN author in this volume, Aldhelm was the author of both letters and poetry, including a hundred riddles in verse, the Enigmata.

On the Hound

The holy power that long since made me

Set me to chase my master’s evil foes.

I wage war with weapons in my jaws, though

At home I retreat from the blows of brats.



Translated by Stephen Owen

LI BAI WAS an extraordinary character in Chinese literature. Said to be partly of Turkish descent, he seems to have lived in his earlier years as an avant la lettre Cyrano de Bergerac, redressing evils wherever he found them. Rejecting a life of respectability, he refused to take the examinations that would have enabled him to follow a career in the civil service. Despite that, he remained throughout his life an enthusiastic student of physics and chemistry. In the poem below, written in 718, the barking of a dog is the first in a series of observations that confirm absence—most obviously that of a reclusive Tao master. It is as if the barking is a kind of static that interferes with the possibility of enlightenment—a concept Li Bai might have been skeptical about.

Visiting the Recluse on Mount Tai Tian
and Not Finding Him In

A dog barks amid the sound of waters,

Peach blossoms dark, bearing dew.

Where trees are thickest, sometimes see a deer,

And when noon strikes the ravine, hear no bell.

Bamboo of wilderness split through blue haze,

A cascade in flight, hung from an emerald peak

But no one knows where you’ve gone—

Disappointed, I linger among these few pines.


(10th century)

Translated by Carolyne Larrington

THE POETIC EDDA records stories from the mythic pagan culture of Iceland and Norway, and most of its poems derive from a single manuscript, retained today in Reykjavik. Its Old Norse cosmos features Yggdrasill, an ash-tree of huge proportions, whose roots penetrate deep into the earth, as well as Hel, where the dead are to be found. The Edda comprises a number of poems including The Seeress’s Prophecy, testament of a prophetess who remembers the beginning of the world and can see ahead to Ragnarok, the Doom of the Gods. The brief extract below describes a recurring vision of Garm, the supernatural canine monster whose barking signals the end of the world. Garm may be related to the pup that guards the way to Hel’s realm. As Odin, chief of the gods, journeys there to discover why his son Baldr is having evil dreams, he is intercepted by a younger beast:

2. he met there a pup, come straight out of hell.

3. Blood there was all over its chest

long it barked

at the father of spells


  • "Cats get all the credit for being mysterious, but dogs are deep. Duncan Wu, a fierce dog-lover himself, knows this truth. The dog poems he's assembled here -- so many of them little-known, so many of them revelations-testify to the fact that humans, from Homer to Dorothy Parker to Michael Ondaatje, have been trying to capture the essential nature of their canine companions for centuries, while dogs had us humans figured out long ago."—Maureen Corrigan, book critic, NPR's Fresh Air
  • "Duncan Wu has curated a collection of poems that conjure both the pleasures of great poetry and the delights that dogs bring -- or sometimes don't! This is the least sentimental of books, as Wu -- whose thoughtful stewardship guides us into many of the poems -- indicates in his introduction. Each poem invites us to consider the relationship between humans and animals and what it tells us about ourselves."—Aminatta Forna, author of Happiness
  • "Dogs have held a special place in the hearts of men and women for as long humans have been humans. Duncan Wu has collected the best of these sentiments across history into a remarkable collection, proving that dogs are, and always have been, our best friends."—Gregory Berns, author of What It's Like to Be a Dog

On Sale
Oct 27, 2020
Page Count
288 pages
Basic Books