The Poem “Dog’s Death” by John Updike
Many people have gone through the loss of a loved one, be it a child, a husband, a father, or even the family pet. Ben Franklin (1789) claimed that there were only two inevitable things in life, and death represented one of them. This subject becomes the theme of many poems. While the dying wish for a dignified death, the family always eager to fight, as it is shown in the poem “Dog’s Death” by John Updike (1958). In this poem, the author relates how losing a pet feels.
John Updike represents one of the brightest characters of a writer, with all the trappings and accolades, black-and-white photographs for succeeding generations. John Hoyer Updike, the American writer, novelist, poet and literary critic, was born on March 18, 1932, in Pennsylvania. He was one of America’s most prolific and greatest literary icons, acclaimed for his intimate, precise style of writing and unflinching approach to sex. It made him one of the most controversial people. The writer’s most famous work is considered his Rabbit series. Describing his main subject as the Protestant middle class, American small-town, John Updike is noted for his prolificacy, unique prose style and careful craftsmanship, having published 22 novels, children’s books, literary criticism as well as more than a dozen short stories collections. Since 1950s, hundreds of his poems, reviews and stories have appeared in The New Yorker. In general, the writer’s works often explore death, faith, sex, and their interrelation (Updike, John).
The master of American realism, he dealt with themes as diverse as the African despotism and existence of God. He wrote a prequel to Hamlet, exploring the relationships between Gertrude and Claudius, her second husband. Updike defined the most enviable image of the postwar writer: male stalwart, urbane, gregarious, with cigarettes, typewriters and love of nautical sweaters. Before spending the remainder of life in the village in Massachusetts, he epitomized the king of slightly soured and graceful American. John Updike wrote on average a book annually. His works are distinguished by their focus on the Christian theology, suffering, passions and concerns of average Americans as well as sexuality and sensual detail. The author’s prose style features an inscrutable, unusual and rich vocabulary that describes the physical world, remaining squarely in the realist tradition.
John Updike in many ways defines and balances upon the center of the beam in American literature. He has managed to avoid the ostentation and obscurity connected to the “highbrow” authors while maintaining a high readership and literary elan. During the past four decades, his poems were full of innumerable moments of depth and incredible grace. His poem “Dog’s Death” is an unusual thing that is recognized as a genuinely sad poem despite being rarely anthologized. It brings the slope of sentimentality at every turn, but at the same time, it manages to keep its footing. It could be one of those exceptions when a reader may describe the piece as “sentimental” without intending harm to poet or poem.
In “Dog’s Death” the writer gives a sentiment-filled but unflinching description of his dog named Polly, which succumbed in 1965. She was a very good dog and even dying she was crawling to use the newspaper. She died as many must at their time, “surrounded by love that would have upheld her” (De Bellis). The poem “Dog’s Death” is a good case in point of the dog’s fidelity. In Updike’s opinion, the primary reason to take the pets into the house may be to bring death. Thus, the poem parallels the demise of the hamster from the Updike’s novel Couples (1968) but is shown through the adult sensibility.
John Updike is well known for his poem “Dog’s Death,” which takes the reader through the emotions of devotion and loss of companion animal. The author focuses on a young puppy, “Too young to know much”, which just starts to learn the paper training (Clugston). The dog’s master is married, with two children, considering the dog to be a part of the family. John Updike uses clarity and alliteration for the title of the poem. Perhaps the author tells his listeners and readers at once as a prologue to prepare them for the complete tragedy of dog’s demise as Shakespeare has done in his prologue to Romeo and Juliet. Shakespeare prepares the readers for the death of the star-crossed lovers.
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Updike wrote this poem in five quatrains, in the first person, using an irregular rhyme scheme and metrical line, consisting of eleven to thirteen syllables. Furthermore, there is the frame rhyme and the words shame. In the narrative poem, writer’s words in general do not have to rhyme. A speaker tells the account in the past tense as flashback. Through the entire work, the initial, middle, and finale parts are traced, arranging the events into the type of story.
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It is hard to describe the death as well as the feelings of emptiness and loss. Updike uses a descriptive words in order to paint a picture in the reader’s imagination describing what the situation looks like. He uses imagery to enhance the tone in order to fire up the feelings (Clugston). The author uses the morose and sorrowful diction and tone in order to make the reader emotionally attached to the family’s sadness and, at the same time, to show the calm acceptance of the dog’s death. This image is very heartbreaking and tragic, revealing the dog in a helpless state unable to be engaged in any activity and the owner’s tears for a lost member of the family. Through the somber descriptions of death, Updike reflects the true sadness of losing a treasured pet, but also his discontent and disappointment in a pet’s lifespan.
From the very first sentence of a poem, the reader can get the feelings of sadness, anguish and confusion that permeate this poem: “She must have been kicked unseen or brushed by a car” (De Bellis). The sentence “…as we teased her with play, blood was filling her skin” lets the reader imagine a family playing with its dog and suddenly there appears picture of the dog’s body with the blood pumping out into the pet’s cavities (De Bellis). This line allows looking into the Updike’s soul and seeing the pang of guilt about not knowing. While the dog has been acting out of character, the family thought it was just a reaction to a shot, received recently by the puppy. In the third quatrain, they find the puppy “twisted and limp” under “the youngest’s bed” and rush to the vet. Updike then reveals the results of autopsy, getting the reader back to the first sentence. In the fifth quatrain, the dog dies in the master’s arms.
There are several sentences that outline the attachment and loyalty between the dog and the author such as “In the car to the vet’s, on my lap” (De Bellis). In the end of the poem, Updike creates an initial feeling of sympathy that may transform into empathy if the reader reacts to the puppy’s predicament in not being able to state its final struggle (Clugston). The poignant image of what the family finds at home, in the last quatrain, deepens their love and exacerbates their loss of this puppy. The poem ends with the words in italics “Good dog”, uttered definitely in pain of loss.
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They “teased her with play” when she was feeling unwell, not realizing that they were aggravating the situation (De Bellis). When realizing the dog was more injured or ill, than they had thought, the family rushed to the vet putting the dog on the lap instead of the back seat. This indicates the family’s love and desire to fight for a dog’s life, even if she “twisted and limp”, run out of steam to fight for her. She tries to bite the hand of master, which may be explained as she does not want to “go gentle into that good night” (Dylan). The evidence of their familial relationship is in the women calling “in a voice imperious with tears” and her husband stroking “her warm fur” (De Bellis). It leads us to think that this puppy was a special animal and her death brought a lot of sorrow to all the members of the family.
Updike uses rhymes for ending each line as well as antithesis and opposing words, such as ‘sank’ and ‘upheld’ in order to increase the intensity of how the dog died. The author uses the words that really bring out an easy way to understand the situation without actually describing it. The family loves the dog so much that they consider the act of caring may keep their pet hanging on until they arrived to the vet. In the line “And her heart was learning how to lie down forever” Updike outlines through the generally accepted dog command “lie down” that the dog’s heart is inevitably going to die (De Bellis). The final sentences bring such power to what the writer intend to inform the reader on. The dog was still able to play with the newspaper even while being deathly sick. She will always express its loyalty to the owners, even considering such circumstances as being nearly dead.
The dog wants to hide in order to die peacefully, but the family fights against the death rushing her to the vet. The theme of a poem, in general, is the dignity in the face of death. While the dying is content to rest, the families insistently demand a fight. Despite being surrounded by love, the puppy dies as it happens to all in their time. The poem acknowledges the inevitability of death and also the refusal to accept it. There is slight hope that love would have upheld her, in case if the family had reached the vet sooner or noticed her injury earlier. Unfortunately, as the author concluded, “Nevertheless she sank and, stiffening, disappeared” (De Bellis).
John Updike is known primarily as an author of the poem “Dog’s Death.” It represents a good example of narrative poetry. His reputation is based on writing in “squelchy messy regions that the squeamish among us would rather not contemplate” (Goring). The author used detailed imagery of reality instead of the emotionally charged metaphors. The obvious metaphor can be visible in line twelve “her heart was learning to lie down forever” (De Bellis). Therefore, it is quite unusual to see such sentences as “The autopsy disclosed a rupture in her liver” and “Drawing near to dissolution, had endured the shame of diarrhea and had dragged across the floor” in other his poems (De Bellis). The poetry of John Updike is not full of metaphor and symbolism, but it is considered no less valuable. He was a critic and an author who considered objectively his material. Updike was not stinting the squeamish detail, and this work exemplified well the personal style of the author.
Important information about the author and the poem could be revealed by examining key details. The speaker’s caring and loving values are unveiled by his responsive and quick actions resulting from the dog’s ill condition. Masculine and strong, usually hidden and gentle sensibility of the husband appears in the end of the poem when he is stroking her warm fur holding in his lap. This forbidden and strong sensibility is also reflected by the tone of the poem. The descriptions are very sympathetic at the beginning stanzas, but more praising and reminiscent diction is used as the poem progresses. This implies that remembering the lost life the narrator becomes more emotionally involved, realizing just how precious and innocent the dog was. The heightening emotion of both the reader and speaker is noticeable in the rhyme as the poem progresses. In the beginning, very few words rhyme, where the most noted rhyming combination reveals in the second stanza between the words “forever” and “liver”, which contain only similar endings. In the fourth stanza, the rhyme appears with the words “her,” and “fur” as well as “disappeared,” and “tears”, which coincide with the increasing amount of involvement and emotions both the reader and the author experience. Therefore, the extensive rhyme scheme outlines the growing and intense personal feeling that the piece elicits.
The usage of small details in the poem has a significant role for the reader’s imagination. The most impressive example of this can be the phrases “We found her twisted and limp but still alive” as well as metaphors “And her heart was learning to lie down forever” (De Bellis). As the master stroked the puppy, it was a sigh he was not willing to think the dog was gone and was not prepared to accept this. His wife “called in a voice imperious with tears” that was a sign of her anger and helplessness, realizing she could not control the situation (De Bellis).
The death is a theme of many poems. Whilst John Updike describes the family’s great desire to save the loved pet, Dylan Thomas, welsh poet and writer, also takes up a theme of death in his poem “Do not Go Gentle into that Good Night.” In the poem, the speaker encourages his father not to give in and fight against the death. It can be assumed that the dying old man is not fighting as the speaker said (Shmoop). All men, “grave men”, “wild men,”, “good men,” and “wise men,” eventually die, proving that it is a certainty (Clugston). The sentence “Though wise men at their end know dark is right,” may be interpreted as the intelligent people do not give in to death easily as there is always more life to live, more to do, and their mark has not been fully completed (Clugston). When the poems “Dog’s Death” and “Do not Go Gentle into that Good Night” are compared at their basic level in content, style and form, they are not similar. Nevertheless, they both reflect the desire of a family to fight against death for a loved person or pet. These two authors acknowledge the inevitability of death as well as exclude any thoughts of letting death come easily.
This poem allows to touch the tender and raw spot left after the death of loved pet and to appreciate what these creatures could do for their owner’s love and praise. Updike creates such a graphic image of the dog’s love and devotion for the master that makes the poem one of the most heartfelt pieces among the Updike’s literary writings.
The title and initial verse already demonstrate the subject of a poem about the passing away of a dog. It should be mentioned that Updike personifies the pet in order to outline the puppy’s value and the influence upon the family. The author asserts “she” was surrounded by love in the fourth stanza that makes the reader realize the attitude towards the dog. The family love for a dog is manifest in the poem as well as the puppy’s fondness and devotion for its family. Personification harmonizes the puppy so that the listeners or readers could link details of a poem to the human. Therefore, the author does not give a female name to the dog as he probably wants to tell the story in the limited omniscient mode.
Updike is noted for his works of fiction, but is given not enough attention for his poetry, which is generally considered as “light verse.” “Ex-Basketball Player” is probably his most anthologized poem but it is not a good representation of what the writer has written in the half century. “Dog’s Death” is not a fuzzy and warm poem as well as it does not tell about the wise pet as Mark Doty tells in his popular poem “Golden Retrievals.” This poem is certainly about loss, death, in particular the death of the young, showing a kind of dignity in facing death, the inability of love to triumph over death or even the desire to do the “right thing” and to be “good.” The attention may be focused on the husband and wife, who do not know about the dog’s injury, probably hurting her further by teasing with play, dealing with the children and then discovering that the puppy was dying when it was too late.
This work features the theme of impermanence and death, the author of which definitely believed in the spirits, ghosts, and the afterlife. One of the main details, outlined in the poem, is that the family, which was involved, did not have any control over the circumstances and the overall situation, leading to the deplorable final. For all living creatures death represents an idea that only few can explain or understand. All experience this mystery that must be confronted on their own. It is rather difficult to realize someone’s death while being totally sheltered from having any association or interaction with a human being outside a consensus reality. Through the small poem, Updike shows a part of the dog’s life, from the reckless puppy to slow tired dog, which died on the hands of his dear loving family. This work has an incredible grace and depth, conveying the fact of the incapability of even love to prevent or triumph over death.
John Updike wrote a second heartbreaking poem about the same topic “Another Dog’s Death”, where he described the last two days and the death of the loved dog.