The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 491

Gerald Stern’s “The Dog” is a free-verse dramatic monologue. In it, a dog speaks from the roadside where he lies dead. In the first third of the poem, the dog talks about his condition, explaining how he lay beside the road for hours before he died and how he looked after death. In the middle third of the poem the dog addresses the “lover of dead things” who will come to dispose of his body. Finally, the dog addresses the “great human heart” (which may be the same as the lover of dead things), asking it for forgiveness and love.

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Stern is often compared to the nineteenth century American poet Walt Whitman for his sense of expansiveness and for his fondness for parallel series and hyperbole. All these qualities are apparent in “The Dog,” as is Stern’s attention to concrete detail. The dog, for example, describes his death with painful specificity, relating how he lay beside the road for two hours, whimpering and dying at last “by pulling the one leg up and stiffening.” He details the particular look of death—“the hair of the chin/ curled in mid-air.”

As the dog imagines the “lover of dead things” coming to dispose of his body, he expresses his fear that disgust may overtake the lover and cause him to push him perfunctorily into “that little valley” with his shoe, shutting out the memories of the dog in life and replacing those memories with “some other thing.”

At last the dog makes a sort of prayer to “Great heart,” asking that the human continue to love him and mourn him; asking him to “forgive the yapping, forgive/ the shitting”; and to recognize that the dog deserves his pity. After all, the dog has been “ruined” by his own love for the human, and for him the dog has given up his canine ways to do the tricks the human taught him.

Characteristically, Stern’s tone changes in the last part of the poem, and the reader is led to consider that the dog’s relationship to the human is not unlike a human relationship to God, who seems to have asked humans to give up their own doggishness, but who seem always to fail in their efforts to do so. The dog reminds the human that he has traded what he is by nature for traits of the parrot, the horse, and the lion, and he has done it all under the human’s tutelage. Still, in the speaker’s eye, the human remains “distant and brilliant and lonely.”

As a Jewish poet, Stern has noted that he naturally brings a Jewish point of view to his work, but he is rarely explicitly religious in the sense of making theological pronouncements, a fact which should warn the reader from trying to turn this poem into an allegory of human/divine relationships. Nevertheless, the parallels are insistent enough not to be ignored.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 531

Stern is not a formal poet; he uses free verse, and conventional figures of speech are rare in his poems. More typically he uses subjects that take on metaphoric significance as he explores them in detail. A good example is his well-known poem “Behaving Like a Jew,” in which the speaker finds a dead opossum on the roadside. He says that he refuses to make self-satisfied comments about the creature’s having rejoined the great cycle of nature; instead he intends to behave like a Jew in mourning the loss of the animal’s quick spark of life. In the course of the poem, the reader recognizes a commentary on Jewish attitudes toward death and finally sees the opossum itself as a portrait of a Jew. Similarly in “The Dog,” the significance of the speaker-dog grows out of the mounting detail about the dog itself and about the person (or perhaps persons) being addressed.

Stern frequently begins his work with a conversational tone, as he does here. “What I was doing with my white teeth exposed/ like thatI don’t know,” the dog begins, describing how he waited for death and the “lover of dead things” to arrive. The lover mysteriously carries a sharpened pencil and a piece of paper as if to catalogue the bodies it disposes of. As the dog describes the lover, Stern begins a series of parallel statements detailing the lover’s fear of the dead animal. Beginning in line 13, eight successive clauses begin with “I know,” “I think,” “I want,” or “I hope.” The dog knows that the sight of death is terrifying to the “lover of dead things”; he wants the lover to touch him as perhaps he did in the past—“to touch my forehead once and rub my muzzle.” The use of parallelism and repetition increases in the last third of the poem, particularly at the end, when the dog makes several metaphoric statements about himself, saying that his tongue is like a parrot’s, the dog is a “rampant horse” and a lion.

The tone of the poem also changes in the last third, where the growing parallelism and hyperbole give a sort of prayerlike, even bardic, quality to the speaker’s utterances. He addresses the “Great heart,/ great human heart,” asking that it continue to love him, mourn him, pity him. He calls the human a “great loving stranger,” asks him to forgive him for the things he has done—“yapping,” “shitting”—which are natural parts of a dog’s existence, and then reminds the human that the dog has given up his nature for “little tricks” that the human has demanded of him. He has become parrot, lion, and horse all for the sake of the cookie, the trivial reward of food, and he concludes by describing the human with three adjectives that underscore the human’s distance from the dog—“oh distant and brilliant and lonely.” Although sometimes Stern’s hyperbole creates a comic effect, here it establishes an elevated and serious tone. The animal that began the poem speaking as a dead dog beside a ditch has risen to lyricism in his love for the “great human heart.”

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