The Poem

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 467

“Funeral Oration for a Mouse” is a short poem in free verse, its thirty-seven lines divided into three stanzas of unequal length. The title, in comically dignifying a mere mouse with a grand “funeral oration,” prepares the reader for the poem’s leveling of human and beast. Although at first sight the orator (or the speaker of the poem) may seem lowered in stooping to such a low theme, it becomes clear from the body of the poem that the mouse, in view of its great determination and courage, is indeed the more dignified of the two.

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The poem begins as a meditation upon the qualities, both good and bad, of a mouse that the speaker has recently caught in a mousetrap. The speaker addresses himself to his Lord, as befitting a funeral speech, and, though there are no descriptions of the speaker’s immediate surroundings, it can be assumed the mouse is either buried, or about to be buried, in the speaker’s backyard or else is being laid to rest in the garbage—probably the latter, given Alan Dugan’s typically acerbic imagination. The speaker immediately links himself to the mouse as “an anxious brother” and, nine lines down, as “a guest/ who shared our board.” He characterizes the mouse as paradoxically combining health and disease and as a quiet, furtive creature which can nevertheless, for “some ladies,” cause a stir. In the last two lines of the stanza, he reveals the dual causes of the mouse’s demise—the trap and the mouse’s “necessary hunger,” both of which compose the principal matter of the second stanza.

For the speaker, the essential meaning of the trap has little to do with “humors of love”—that is, with seduction and the attainment of the object of desire. Rather, it is merely his “opinion of the mouse,” the simple fact that he wanted the mouse dead. On the other hand, the speaker imagines that for the mouse the trap was the sole symbol of a mouse religion founded upon and driven by hunger, serving as tree of knowledge, true cross, and hell’s gate combined. Able to approach its god, even with caution, the mouse proved itself braver and wiser than the speaker, who, though victorious, finds himself unable to delight in his victory.

Indeed, as the last stanza reveals, the speaker is repulsed by what he has accomplished. He realizes that, as the mouse was a pest to him, so he may be to someone else. For a moment, he imagines that the mouse, with its fingers “skinnier/ than hairpins and as breakable as cheese,” might become itself a trap, grasping the speaker’s “grasping” life, and he trembles lest he, with his “own stolen baits,” be pulled “into the common death beyond the mousetrap.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 516

In choosing to dignify a dead mouse with the pomp of a funeral oration, Dugan must perform a careful balancing act. On the one hand, if he treats his theme too lightly, his poem becomes a mockery of the mouse and the speaker’s own “felt though minor guilt” for killing the mouse. This is hardly Dugan’s intention; his meditation is indeed sobering. Yet if he allows too much solemnity, he risks falling into bathos. Dugan manages much of this balancing act through a manipulation of rhythms and rhetoric, undercutting his dignified, classical tone with gently comical touches.

Much of the dignified effect is achieved through the elongation of the sentences. In considering this aspect of the poem, it may seem that Dugan’s use of colons is problematic. If this were ordinary prose, four of the poem’s five colons would need to be corrected to either periods or semicolons. The only “correctly” used colon occurs at the end of the ninth line. Yet by using colons instead of full or partial stops, Dugan achieves much the same effect as the contemporary American poet A. R. Ammons, who almost invariably uses only colons to divide his sentences and fragments. The colon allows ideas to run together, giving the suggestion that each sentence comments on the previous one as well as making otherwise short sentences seem longer and, as is the case in “Funeral Oration,” weightier.

Also, almost every sentence is either complex or, like the massive sentence which makes up the entire third stanza, compound-complex. This in itself adds weight to the poem; here one finds no Hemingwayesque strings of simple and compound sentences. Instead, elegant constructions abound: “full of health himself,/ he brought diseases like a gift”; “Younger by far, in dying he/ was older than us all”; “Why,/ then, at that snapping sound, did we, victorious.” Added to this elegance of construction is an elegance of rhythm and sound. The first two words, “This, Lord,” being both stressed, demand a slow entrance into the poem. The tempo quickens after the first colon and continues fast and light through the next five lines, during which the mouse is described. Thus, the sound becomes, in accordance with Alexander Pope’s famous prescription, “an echo to the sense,” with the movement of the verse mimicking the quickness of the mouse. In line 7, this movement suddenly slows with “for whom some ladies stand on chairs.” To the ladies the mouse is all too large and slow. Through the manipulation of rhythm and imagery, Dugan undercuts his heretofore self-conscious elegance with some sly comedy.

Dugan also uses assonance and consonance, sometimes to heighten the dignity of his oration, sometimes to render it comical. As examples of the former, there are the assonances of “ignoble foe and ancient sin” and the repeated o and l sounds in “mobile tail and nose.” An excellent example of a comical effect occurs with the near rhyme at the end of the first stanza between “trap” and “back,” combined with the almost sardonic alliteration and consonance of the heavily stressed “broken back.”

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