Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Throughout “The Dog,” the reader is invited to see a contrast between the responses of the dog-speaker and the humans he addresses. The dog suggests that the humans are unreliable; he fears that the lover of dead things will give in to the urge to push his body away with his shoe instead of caressing him. He feels sure that the lover of dead things will be frightened of him, or perhaps of the presence of death in him. In either case, the response stands in contradiction to the idea that this person loves dead things.

In the last third of the poem, the dog says “I have given/ my life for this, emotion has ruined me.” That statement marks a transition; from this point on the dog considers what he has done out of love for the human. It was love that made him exchange his wildness for the qualities of a parrot, which says what it has been taught; for a horse, which carries humans and their burdens; and for a lion, whose strength in the dog operates on command. That is what the dog’s emotion led him to do in order to woo the “distant and brilliant and lonely.”

The dog’s repeated yearning for the human’s forgiveness, pity, and love—and the patterned way in which that yearning is expressed—is what leads the reader to consider the metaphoric possibilities of the dog-human relationship. The dog may be like a lover whose love is accepted or ignored by the capricious love object that has taught the dog tricks for the latter’s convenience or amusement. Stern never defines the metaphor so specifically as to demand a particular reading. The love object may be a human lover, or God, or any passion which causes change in the lover. The reader notes the irony implicit in the ending of the poem, however, where the three adjectives—distant, brilliant, lonely—connote qualities that are not necessarily comfortable. Even in death, the dog seems to long to close the distance, to make the human lover less lonely in his brilliance even as the dog does the tricks he has learned out of love.