For December’s poem of the month, I thought I should probably pick something festive to go with the season. Yet, being in love with the Romantic poets, I find this poignant poem by George Gordon Byron expresses the true spirit of Christmas. It celebrates the love, loyalty and courage of the poet’s best friend, and all they gave to one another.
Byron was a handsome, troubled soul. Often described as the most notorious of the major Romantics, he was both celebrated and castigated for his aristocratic excesses, including debts, affairs with both genders and self-imposed exile. Behind this exterior, he was a devoted animal-lover, his favourite dog being a Newfoundland called Boatswain. When Boatswain contracted rabies, Byron nursed him without care for catching the disease himself. When Boatswain passed away, Byron commissioned a memorial stone larger than his own in the grounds of Newstead Abbey, his estate in Nottinghamshire. This poem is the epitaph that adorns the stone.
The poem is important to me for the poet’s recognition of the purity of animals and how they should be remembered for their devotion and strength of character. It is only humans that are immortalised in graveyards, despite the fact that they are ‘corrupt by power’ and ‘by nature vile’. It may seem like a gloomy poem for Christmas, but it’s not! It can be a fierce reminder of how we should admire the uncomplicated hearts of animals, and turn our backs on ‘Black Friday’, money and materialism for a more simple festive month.
Epitaph to a Dog by Lord Byron
Near this Spot
are deposited the Remains of one
who possessed Beauty without Vanity,
Strength without Insolence,
Courage without Ferocity,
and all the virtues of Man without his Vices.
This praise, which would be unmeaning Flattery
if inscribed over human Ashes,
is but a just tribute to the Memory of
Boatswain, a Dog
who was born in Newfoundland May 1803
and died at Newstead Nov. 18th, 1808
When some proud Son of Man returns to Earth,
Unknown to Glory, but upheld by Birth,
The sculptor’s art exhausts the pomp of woe,
And storied urns record who rests below.
When all is done, upon the Tomb is seen,
Not what he was, but what he should have been.
But the poor Dog, in life the firmest friend,
The first to welcome, foremost to defend,
Whose honest heart is still his Master’s own,
Who labours, fights, lives, breathes for him alone,
Unhonoured falls, unnoticed all his worth,
Denied in heaven the Soul he held on earth –
While man, vain insect! hopes to be forgiven,
And claims himself a sole exclusive heaven.
Oh man! thou feeble tenant of an hour,
Debased by slavery, or corrupt by power –
Who knows thee well, must quit thee with disgust,
Degraded mass of animated dust!
Thy love is lust, thy friendship all a cheat,
Thy tongue hypocrisy, thy heart deceit!
By nature vile, ennobled but by name,
Each kindred brute might bid thee blush for shame.
Ye, who behold perchance this simple urn,
Pass on – it honours none you wish to mourn.
To mark a friend’s remains these stones arise;
I never knew but one — and here he lies.