Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

Ferlinghetti succeeds in creating a humorous yet troubling poem by considering what the measure of man is in a dog’s life. The faith that “man is the measure of all things” frequently found expression in Renaissance poems such as George Herbert’s “Man,” which optimistically claims “He is in little all the sphere” and “Nothing we see but means our good.” In “Dog,” the Renaissance assumption that a felicitous correspondence exists between man and the world is set against the twentieth century conviction that life is absurd, that it is literally a dog’s life. The modern worldview holds that no divinely sanctioned order exists, and that one can draw meaning from neither a divine presence within oneself nor a single knowable reality. “God” is in the dog, but only as a rearrangement of the letters of the word, and the dog’s very nature colors whatever limited sense the animal makes of his world. He must always experience himself, not an independent reality.

Although pervasive anxiety or existential angst has usually been deemed the appropriate response to a universe without intrinsic meaning, the cheerful tone of Ferlinghetti’s poem demonstrates that enervating despair is not his response. The dog’s world is richly informed by the life of the senses “touching and tasting and testing everything,” and the verse is energetic and confident. Intellect and language, however, are suspect; as Ferlinghetti says sardonically, the dog’s...

(The entire section is 603 words.)