Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 603

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.

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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 knowledge of his world comes “without benefit of perjury,” without the deceitful distortion of linguistic signs. The dog’s meaning is not conveyed by language but by gesture—the “tale” is told by a “tail”—and, appropriately, the wordplay makes meaning and its expression identical, if only phonemically. At the same time, the singsong repetition of “real” seems to mock the very possibility of defining it in words.

Unconstrained by language and immersed in immediate experience, the dog is a four-footed member of the loosely defined “beat” movement and an exponent of its mysticism and anti-intellectualism. Not surprisingly, the more worldly political concerns of the beats also find expression in the poem. The dog’s free enterprise, unmuzzled free speech, and self-reliance renew classic democratic virtues, yet the political establishment, in the person of Congressman Doyle, is antagonistic to such a pure expression of American values. Embodying American ideals in a dog deflates the conventional conception of them and gives the poem its clearest satirical and moral edge. The political establishment itself is satirically cut down to size by the not entirely subtle sexual meaning of the contrast between the phallic Coit’s (coitus) Tower, which looms large and intimidating, and Congressman Doyle, who is not up to the comparison.

American ideals, however, are almost incidental targets in the poem. “Dog” is a dramatization of relativism and of multiple worldviews, and it warns against holding that any set of beliefs is universally true, including those held dear in America. So too, the dog’s naïve worldview is attractive, but it does not hold the truth and cannot include the act of the human imagination in the final section of “Dog.”

“Dog” asserts the value of wonder in the face of existence, acknowledges the yearning for a “Victorious answer to everything,” questions whether a “hollow horn” or Godless universe will provide it, and warns that, fixed in language, an absolute answer “to everything” would be dangerous anyway. That the poem “trots freely” under such a weight is to be wondered at, and that is the point, for laughter is a mark of knowing that there is more than one ta(i)l(e) to tell.

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