Funeral Oration for a Mouse Analysis

Alan Dugan

The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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.

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...

(The entire section is 467 words.)

Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 516 words.)