Poem of the Week: You were never masters, but friends

While I was out of town this weekend, one of my friends lost her dog. As I read over the many caring comments on her Facebook page, it struck me how difficult it is to express condolences - especially on the loss of a pet. Like many others, I ended up simply saying "I'm sorry."

The significance of the relationship between pet and person is often minimized, even though we know that the unconditional love supplied by a pet can do astonishing things for human mental and physical health. Personally, I don't believe animals have souls, but neither do I believe they are soulless automatons. Cats and dogs are built of the same basic physiological systems we are. They learn. They remember. They experience hurt, fear, and love. They are ephemeral, and they die. They may not have quite the same mental lives or emotions we experience, but that shouldn't lessen them -- nor should it ever lessen the love we feel for them.

I've given this 1941 poem by Robinson Jeffers to a few friends when they lost their pets, and it struck me that I should post it here just in case any of you haven't seen it already. It's sentimental, yes, but it's also one of the most comforting things I've ever read. I can't read it without crying, and since it is hard to type while crying (my keyboard is getting very wet) I'd better close.

RIP, Aussie. . . . and many others.

The House Dog's Grave (for Haig, an English Bulldog)

I've changed my ways a little; I cannot now
Run with you in the evenings along the shore,
Except in a kind of dream; and you,
If you dream a moment,
You see me there.

So leave awhile the paw-marks on the front door
Where I used to scratch to go out or in,
And you'd soon open; leave on the kitchen floor
The marks of my drinking-pan.

I cannot lie by your fire as I used to do
On the warm stone,
Nor at the foot of your bed; no,
All the nights through I lie alone.

But your kind thought has laid me less than six feet
Outside your window where firelight so often plays,
And where you sit to readâ
And I fear often grieving for meâ
Every night your lamplight lies on my place.

You, man and woman, live so long, it is hard
To think of you ever dying.
A little dog would get tired, living so long.
I hope that when you are lying
Under the ground like me your lives will appear
As good and joyful as mine.

No, dears, that's too much hope:
You are not so well cared for as I have been.
And never have known the passionate undivided
Fidelities that I knew.
Your minds are perhaps too active, too many-sided...
But to me you were true.

You were never masters, but friends. I was your friend.
I loved you well, and was loved. Deep love endures
To the end and far past the end. If this is my end,
I am not lonely. I am not afraid. I am still yours.

--Robinson Jeffers, 1941.

More like this

I've gradually gotten used to the idea that as a semi-pro blogger, I will occasionally be sent review copies of books I've never heard of. These are generally physics books, and I have a stack of them sitting next to the bed at the moment, not being read nearly fast enough. It's only recently that…
In a good post about puppy mills, Amanda Marcotte made a good point about domesticated versus undomesticated pets (italics mine): This would probably mean that people couldn't get exotic pets, and that isn't really the sort of thing that would keep me up at night, either. I understand the urge to…
It's been a pretty good week on the ol' blog here, with lots of good material to draw from, finishing up yesterday with my expression of disdain for the choice of Bill Maher for the Richard Dawkins Award. I expected some blowback for my criticism, and I got some. However, I was surprised at how…
I take a big issue with breed-specific legislation. Politicians target innocent breeds that they claim are "dangerous" because they're too small-minded to look at the facts of how dogs become aggressive. If you were to outlaw "dangerous" breeds, you'd have to start with the most aggressive - like…

It's the line "A little dog would get tired, living so long." that always gets me.

You write:
"Personally, I don't believe animals have souls, but neither do I believe they are soulless automatons."

I have to ask, Cicada, in your view, are humans counted among the animals (and therefore lacking souls) or do you view humanity as a species apart (and soulfully unique)? I ask this with a wink, but out of legitimate curiosity.

That said, I realize that this may be a topic best avoided on a public comment board, lest you get swarmed with extremists of either stripe!

In any case, the poem is very touching.

Yes, a beautiful poem. I'm a fairly cynical middle-aged guy, but when we buried our old cat last month I cried like a child.

I've always loved the following little poem by Robert Herrick; the date is 1648, I think.

Upon His Spaniel Tracy

Now thou art gone, no eye shall ever see,
For shape and service, spaniel like to thee.
This shall my love do, give thy sad death one
Tear, that deserves from me a million.

There's enough religious polemic on Scienceblogs already, so I have a rule against blogging on theological issues. I'm not going to discuss it here. Besides, I'm sure you can guess what my answer is, HH.